Last Thursday, the regulator approved a request by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. to resume steaming bitumen from wells in the Primrose field near Cold Lake that are close to seepage that has been occurring since last summer.
The regulator says the steaming operation can be no closer than one kilometre from the leaks and must be conducted at low pressure.
Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute, a green-energy think-tank that opposed CNRL's request, said the safest thing to do would have been to refuse any new steaming until the investigation into the company's ongoing leak was finished. She pointed out that CNRL has a history of pressure-related blowouts.
As the oilsands industry increasingly moves toward so-called in situ techniques such as steam injection, it's important the regulator retain public confidence, Flanagan said.
"If it does happen again, it has implications for the whole in situ industry," she said. "This is increasingly an extraction mechanism that is being scrutinized by the public because of what's going on at Primrose."
Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema agreed the regulator should reverse its decision until its investigation is complete and seepage into a lake is stopped.
"If you started to believe that Alberta's energy regulator had teeth, it's now clear they just fell out," Hudema said in a release Tuesday. "It’s unbelievable that it would allow CNRL to start injecting high-pressure steam within 1 1/2 kilometres of where bitumen is still leaking into a lake."
Hudema suggested the approval shows the regulator is more attentive to corporate profits than public health.
The regulator has said CNRL (TSX:CNQ) must step up its monitoring and check all other wells in the area to ensure that more steam won't cause them to leak.
The regulator ordered the suspension of steaming operations within the eastern part of the company's Primrose field in 2013 following three bitumen emulsion releases.
In late June, Canadian Natural reported a fourth release, prompting the regulator to order the company to stop steaming within one kilometre of the leak and to restrict steaming throughout the northern and southern parts of the Primrose field.
Steaming restrictions remain in place within one kilometre of where the leaks occurred.