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Dirtiest Oil: Why In Situ Bitumen Extraction Is Dangerous for Canada, the World
(Photo: Suncor Energy / Flickr)

Dirtiest Oil: Why In Situ Bitumen Extraction Is Dangerous for Canada, the World

(Photo: Suncor Energy / Flickr)

“Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.”Wallace Pratt (1885-1981)

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A recent incident at the Primrose oil sands project near Cold Lake, Alberta – operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) – is a case study of the threat of voracious oil extraction within an unfettered petrostate.

In July, CNRL’s in situ mining operation near the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range experienced a massive underground oil blowout that has leaked more than 1.5 million liters of bitumen (heavy crude) emulsion. Oozing and percolating from the surface, the leak has polluted surrounding wetlands, forests and muskeg, as well as the traditional lands of the Beaver Lake Cree and Cold Lake First Nations.

The full extent of the Primrose leak is not yet known. Unlike a pipeline rupture, where leaks are readily detected and measured, it is nearly impossible to monitor the scope of an underground spill in real time. The spread of bitumen emulsion through subsoil as it threatens reservoirs and expansive swaths of wilderness is difficult to track from the surface. Oil from the Primose leak already has enveloped sacred gravesites and hunting land of the Beaver Lake Cree.

Alberta Environment reports that four distinct bitumen releases have been identified at Cold Lake. One was caused by a fissure at the bottom of a small, unnamed lake that has since been drained to mitigate long-term damage to wetland and amphibian life. Damage to the caprock at this site has allowed bitumen leakages to contaminate aquifers and groundwater.

As pressurized steam technologies gain traction in Alberta – there are 122 sites in the province – the safety of in situ mining technologies has been called into question. First Nations communities whose lands are threatened by leakages have been at the forefront of demands to end environmentally dangerous practices.

In Situ Extraction Practices

In situ (Latin for “in place”) extraction techniques encompass relatively new technologies designed to access the underground bitumen stores that account for more than 80 percent of the Alberta oil sands industry. In situ technologies have been presented as a cleaner alternative to the open pit mines often associated with oil sands extraction. Cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) – a method that injects highly pressurized steam and water deep into the ground to break up gas deposits nestled between cracks in the rock – is an in situ extraction technique used at Cold Lake.

“The one fundamental truth about all this is that the steam plants are much dirtier than the mining operations,” says journalist Andrew Nikiforuk. “The assumption is that because the mining operations look God awful – these huge open pit mines, the tailing ponds and waste – somehow these steam plants in the forest are going to be much gentler operations. The mining plants will create a hole in the ground the side of Delaware or Rhode Island. The steam plants will disturb an area in the boreal forest four times larger than that, around 15,000 square kilometers of disturbance. They use three times more natural gas; they produce three times more greenhouse gas emissions. They use enormous amounts of water and have the potential to put groundwater at risk throughout the whole region.”

Political Response to the Spill

Nikiforuk suggests that CNRL’s leak at Cold Lake is emblematic of the insecure trajectory of Canada’s national energy vision.

In 2013, there have been multiple high-profile spills, leaks and derailments tied to the petroleum industry. These have damaged the country’s environmental record, and have brought attention to the Conservative government’s preoccupation with foreign investment. Simply put, offshore shareholding of Canadian oil (estimated to be over 55%) is not consistent with federal guarantees of widespread prosperity and job creation. Money from the oil sands is flowing out of the country, while the costs, environmental and social, are borne at home.

The deregulation of Canada’s oil industry, coupled with the high price of oil, has meant that energy corporations exploiting Alberta’s fields pay low royalties and little tax. In situ extraction methods present an avenue for profit that disregards the rights of First Nations communities and fragile subarctic ecosystems.

Alberta’s energy regulator, former oil industry lobbyist and Encana VP Gerry Protti, is a paragon of the neoliberal direction of Canada’s economy. In a press release about the leak at Cold Lake, Protti didn’t acknowledge the enormous environmental impact of CNRL’s operation; instead he emphasized the “direct impact” arising from “taking 40,000-plus barrels of production out of [the company’s] cash flow.” To the surrounding residents and to people concerned with ecosystem health, it is little wonder that environmental cleanup and reconciliation have yet to materialize.

Success of First Nations’ Mobilization

First Nations’ social movements like Idle No More have prompted a surge in environmental consciousness among global activists. From indigenous protesters who undertook a 100-kilometer walk to protest CNRL at Cold Lake, to the Mi’kmaq anti-fracking blockaders near Rexton, New Brunswick, our ruinous relationship with the ecosphere is getting increased attention.

Last month, petitions by the Beaver Lake Cree and Cold Lake First Nations successfully demanded that Alberta Environment and the Province issue an enforcement order to CNRL. The order requires the company to provide impact assessments to the surrounding community, documenting the extent of the four bitumen release sites. Community members wonder what impact this small victory will have on CNLR’s practices.

Crystal Lameman, a Beaver Lake Cree activist and Peace River oil sands campaigner, has been outspoken regarding CNRL’s leak. Invoking Treaty 6, a 19th century agreement between the Canadian monarch and the Plain and Wood Cree, Lameman said:

“Treaty 6 was signed in 1876, and within that treaty, it said that as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow, we will always have an obligation and an inherent right to the land. We have our pro-industry people flying all over the world, Joe Oliver our [minister of natural resources], quoted on CBC saying, ‘Tar sands land is uninhabitable by human beings.’ So you know no community is being disrupted. That land he’s talking about is our traditional hunting territory. We live there. So here we are, yet again, living within genocide, oppression as a people, being deliberately ignored. Because here’s our Canadian government saying, what? Indigenous people don’t exist? We’re not here? No, we’re still here, 500-plus years later. After everything we’ve endured, we’re still here. And it should never be all right that you should have to choose morals and values, who you are as an indigenous person, our knowledge systems, our ways of knowing and being, our connection to the land. We are the land. But we have to choose that over feeding our families, and that’s not all right.”

Lameman, an activist who previously has taken the government of Canada to court for treaty violations, is setting a crucial precedent for future grassroots opposition to oil sands development in Alberta and beyond. She is proving that methods outside of civil disobedience exist to extend the mandate of Idle No More beyond its more radical aims. She is showing that official demands, court appearances and grinding political action within the boundaries of the system can lead to meaningful progress.

The federal Conservative government has declared openly its intransigence to policies such as a carbon tax and energy diversification. There exists, however, significant support from the alternative media and parts of the scientific community for legislation that would encourage innovation and replace archaic in situ technologies with safer and cleaner methods of resource extraction.

Toward an Inclusive National Energy Vision

“If you had a better-regulated environment,” Nikiforuk said, “you would have much more transparency about the problems and challenges of [in situ] technology and much better management of it, so that resources like capital and water machinery are not being wasted. … I think a carbon tax would be a really important first step. I think also charging for water would be an important first step. It would drive innovation, and it would also leave the dirtiest hydrocarbon resources in the ground.”

Prioritizing the ecosphere has never been a more relevant concern, especially in light of widespread in situ bitumen extraction across the country. The response to the leak at CNRL’s Primrose operation is a microcosm of the challenges facing our natural environment, but it has intensified grassroots mobilization from Elsipogtog to Cold Lake. With continued and concerted efforts against those whose interests lie with profit – not the natural environment and the communities that inhabit it – political action inevitably will manifest.

As Bolivian President Evo Morales once said, “Sooner or later, we have to recognize that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”