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Oil Sands Leak Calls into Question Extraction Techniques

A leak at an oil sands facility in Northern Alberta has so far spilled 280,022 gallons of oil across a 51 acre area since June and is becoming the focus of increasing concerns that environmentalists have about the safety of oil sands production.

Anthony Smith, a lawyer with the international programs division of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained to the NY Times that the “mess is a symptom of the problems with the reckless expansion of the tar sands. Environmental regulations have just not caught up.”

The oil sands industry has proved a huge boon to Canada, generating billions for the economy, and providing thousands of jobs, but at the same time it has been highly criticised for its particularly harmful impact on the environment, an impact that President Obama has decided to consider strongly when making his decision to approve, or disapprove the building of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Related article: Halliburton Plead Guilty to Destruction of Evidence in 2010 Gulf Oil Spill

Bitumen that has been spilling into the area around Cloud Lake
Bitumen that has been spilling into the area around Cloud Lake. (Syndicated News Service)

The spill, at the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Cloud Lake, Alberta, is coming from an unknown source. Canadian Natural Resources is the company who owns the local project, and has decided to blame abandoned wells in the area for the spill, although environmentalists are adamant that the spill is caused by fundamental flaws in the process used by the company to extract the bitumen.

Related article: Rig Fire Exposes Lingering Dangers of Offshore Drilling

The company uses a process similar to fracking, in which it injects high-pressured steam down into the oil sands deposits. The high temperature helps turn the bitumen into liquid form, and separates it from the sand, allowing it to then push up to the surface via wells.

Canadian Natural Resources expects to spend around $60 million on clean-up and investigation of the spill, but until the source of the problem is discovered the oil will continue leaking.

Steve W. Laut, the president of Canadian Natural, told NY Times last week that his company had not caused the spill, claiming that the pressure needed to force the bitumen through the rock is higher than anything it uses, and that they have reported no faulty wells, so the only explanation is old wells in the area.

Jim Ellis, the chief executive of the newly formed Alberta Energy Regulator, said; “we do not currently have the evidence or data to support any conclusions as to the cause of the incident and look forward to reviewing C.N.R.L.'s information supporting their conclusions on the root cause of the releases.”

Until the clean-up is complete, and the source of the spill has been identified, the regulator has ordered Canadian Natural Resource to suspend some of its operations.

By. Joao Peixe of Oilprice.com



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