The Red Deer River is seen in an aerial photo taken after a pipeline carrying crude started spilling oil into a tributary creek near Sundre, Alberta on June 8, 2012.
Credits: COURTESY PHOTO
EDMONTON -- An oil-gushing pipeline break on the Red Deer River comes precisely at a time when some people with roots in Cold Lake, AB, are worried about the environmental impact of the booming oil industry there.
While Cold Lake's in-situ oil wells feed hungry pipelines to the rest of the world downstream -- to the tune of 500,000 barrels of oil a day -- not everyone's pleased with the development that has some calling the Lakelands city "mini-Fort McMurray."
A town hall meeting in the Crane Lake area last week came just as the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) reported an "unconfirmed volume of hydrocarbons" from an inactive Rangeland pipeline operated by Plains Midstream made its way to the Red Deer River via Jackson Creek.
A planned Birchwood Resources Thermal steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) project/field meters down the shoreline from her house on neighboring Crane Lake has Shawna Ilchuk worried for her children's future.
"We don't really want it down the shore on the lake, we don't really understand what could happen and if it's worth it," Ilchuk said.
"My husband and I have serious concerns with any oilfield development being so close to Crane Lake and our family home."
Considered a jewel in the rough, the lake is a beloved recreational and residential area for many, she said. Among her top concerns, effects on wildlife, thermal steam effects to the lake, and "unpredictable events causing irreversible damage (seen at other fields) liquid coming to surface that is unable to be contained."
The Energy Resource Conservation Board does, on occasion, approve well operations that run deep under Alberta lakes, like the slant well planned by CNRL at Minnie Lake, Alta.
Ilchuk said she's alarmed about reports of blowouts seen at other lakes north of Crane, Alta.
A quick scan of the ERCB website shows that among dozens of releases and leaks reported by Alberta's regulatory body for the energy industry in recent years, those spilling into water bodies have focused on the Swan Hills area.
They included the October 2011 Penn West Energy water pipeline release into First Creek, southwest of Swan Hills. There was also a July 2011 pipeline release of 1,300 barrels of crude into a creek north of Swan Hills by Pembina Pipelines Corp., and a June 2011 pipeline rupture and explosion at a Pengrowth Energy facility 23 kilometres southwest of the Swan Hills spills that sent light, sweet crude oil into Judy Creek.
The ERCB notes on itswebsite that in 2009, Alberta's pipeline industry set a record-low pipeline failure rate of 1.7 per 1,000 kilometres of pipeline, bettering the previous record-low of 2.1 set in both 2008 and 2007.
Also in 2009, the ERCB recorded a blowout rate of .149 blowouts per 1,000 non-abandoned wells. In 2010, ERCB field surveillance staff conducted a record 25,373 field inspections and audits of energy facilities in Alberta, according to an ERCB press release.
Bob Curran, a spokesman for the ERCB, said improved standards, tightened regulations and improved technology have reduced the spill rates in Alberta.
"In general, what we've seen is that pipeline failure rate has decreased over time," he said.
Curran wouldn't rule out changes as a result of recent spills.
"We're always concerned... If there's something we see that needs to be changed as a result, then we'll make those changes," he said.
The line that spilled last week into the Red Deer River was not in operation, Curran said.
"What happens on an operating pipeline is they'd detect a drop in pressure and they can shut it off remotely," he said.
So how did the inactive pipeline's breach escape notice?
"We have regulations pertaining to things that must be done in regard to pipelines that are not operating," he said, adding that the question will be impossible to answer until the investigation reveals what happened.
A Plains Midstream press release posted on their website, www.plainsresponds.com, said some web-posted pictures circulating in social media, purporting to be of the Red Deer River spill, aren't from there.
"You may have seen some shocking images circulating over the last couple days. While we appreciate that images are an important part of telling a story, some of them are incorrect," the spokesman said, adding many of the pictures are from the company's Rainbow pipeline spill in the Peace River, AB, region in 2011.
"We have seen images online, on TV and in the news that are not related to the Rangeland pipeline incident at all, such as images that depict oil-saturated wetlands and oil slicks. Some of the images depict the Rainbow pipeline spill from 2011; that site, and the environment, look very different today. The Rainbow pipeline release site is now fully remediated and nearly 100% reclaimed with natural revegetation occurring," the press release said.
The company says they have contracted with photographers to document the spill, and they have posted some pictures on the site.
Meanwhile, a man identifying himself as a former Imperial Oil worker who critiqued that company's Cold Lake area use of Cyclic Steam Stimulation said SAGD, which injects steam into one horizontal well and allows the softened, heated bitumen to be drawn into a well lower down, is an improvement over the CSS now widely used in Imperial's 160,000-barrel-a-day operation over the Clearwater bitumen reservoir near Cold Lake.
Additionally, despite a far smaller and tidier surface footprint, he said CSS isn't an improvement over Fort McMurray's attention-getting big hole in the ground.
"CSS is just as harsh a process as open pit mining (seen in Fort McMurray.) They steam the wells for over a month an experience over one meter in ground heave. They have casing failures and blowouts often. Most of the damage is underground, where you can't visibly see it," he said.
"They should have switched over to a SAGD process which is much more environmentally friendly process," he said. "If they haven't it's because it's cheaper to continue with CSS. They talk safety and environment but as soon as it affects profit it goes out the window."
He maintained that abandoned wells are often left to sit until the government demands that they abandon it properly.
"Do not be fooled by any oil company, it's all about economics," he said.