08/11/2013 11:45 EDT

Cold Lake Bitumen Leak: Critics Call For Review Of Oilsands Steaming

An investigation into the cause of a major oil leak in northern Alberta is underway, but critics are calling for a review of the extraction process that may have lead to the spill in the first place.

Clean up crews have been working around the clock to contain a bitumen leak at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s (CNRL) Primrose operation, which has been spewing for nearly two months now.

Deep, narrow fissures have been seeping bitumen -- a sticky, black form of petroleum -- from within the confines of the Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake's air weapons range, approximately 300 km northeast of Edmonton.

Crews have sucked up 7,300 barrels of bitumen, but with million of litres already spilled, and another 2,400 litres continuing to seep into the bush each day, critics are beginning to question the steam injection process used to extract the oil in the first place.

While steam injection, or cyclical steam stimulation (CSS), is often considered more environmentally friendly than mining, some fear the method may be causing fissures in the rock, allowing bitumen to rise to the surface and pollute marshland and waterways.

Walter Janvier, a councillor with the Cold Lake First Nations, told the Edmonton Journal he's worried about aquifiers deep underground.

“We are concerned about this high pressure process, as some of those wells go half a kilometre down,” he said.

“It’s not so much the surface spill, that can be cleaned up. But when you can’t control what happens underground, that’s a different story. We want an investigation that looks at all the technical data.”

Canadian Natural Resources Limited president Steve Laut told the Wall Street Journal he's confident poorly-capped, abandoned well bores are what caused the leak, allowing bitumen to flow into cracks in the rock and migrate horizontally; not weakness in the surrounding cap rock.

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Alberta Oil Spills

Environmental organizations, on the other hand, say the high-pressure steaming has fractured capstone.

“It’s physically impossible to inject steam up through that cap rock because the pressures that are required are more than we inject,” Laut told the Wall Street Journal.

However, critics say the company is jumping to conclusions and should be investigating the matter further, especially considering the similarities between this leak and a 2009 spill the company faced in the same area which saw 5,600 litres spill into surrounding wetlands.

“It’s irresponsible for CNRL to advance a theory when the investigation is incomplete,” Chris Severson-Baker, a managing director at the Pembina Institute, told the Wall Street Journal.

Whatever they learned in 2009 didn’t prevent this latest incident,” he added.

The province's governmental watchdog, the Alberta Energy Regulator, agrees it's too early to reach any conclusions and will continue to investigate.

The regulator has ordered the company to stop steaming in the affected area as a precaution.

The regulator’s report on the 2009 spill found no clear evidence faulty well bores contributed to the leak. The report, which took years to complete and was not made public until January 2013, noted the steam volume used in 2009 was significantly higher than normal and likely contributed to the spill, reports the Edmonton Journal.

The report also found that “geological weakness, in combination with stress induced by high-pressure steam injection,” may have contributed to the incident.

CNRL president Steve Laut toured the Primrose operation last week, apologizing for the leak and reflecting on what could have been done better.

“We’re very sorry it’s happened and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure it’s cleaned up," he told reporters.

“I think if you go back and look in hindsight, we weren’t communicating quickly enough to the public – so lesson learned for us.”

Dozens of animals have already been rescued from the site and taken to Edmonton for rehabilitation, but as many as 60 amphibians and birds have also died.

Preliminary estimates state the clean up will cost more than $40 million.