Oil spills, an all too common occurrence

CNRL
Aerial shot of a CNRL site near Cold Lake, AB, where a body of water had to be drained. Photo: CNRL

Over the past few weeks we have been covering the four Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) sites, as they continue seeping bitumen emulsion to the surface.

The incidents have grabbed headlines around the world and elicited many questions, but one question stands out above the rest: how has the situation got this bad?

I’m baffled by the fact a company and industry that boasts such expertise at extracting oil cannot figure out how to halt the flow of oil. The CNRL seepages, reported on May 20, June 8 and June 24 are still seeping bitumen emulsion to the surface – granted, at a slower pace than before, at only 20 barrels a day. That’s 12 weeks of on-going bitumen emulsion leaking into the environment and still without a way to stop it.

Sure, if you spin it, 20 barrels of oil from a company that produces around 110,000 barrels a day is negligible. But what if someone was to take those 20 barrels and dump them in your back yard, everyday on an on-going basis?

Over the past 37 years there have been 28,666 crude oil spills reported in Alberta, according to a report by Global News (using data collected by the Energy Resource Conservation Board). That means Alberta has had an average of two oil spills per day, every day for the past 37 years. Plus, in that same time frame, there have been another 31,453 spills of substances other than crude oil used by industry.

And just to clarify, any spill consisting of less than 12.5 barrels or 2,000 litres of material is not considered a spill by the ERCB, now called the Alberta Energy Regulator.*

It seems over the past 37 years oil extraction companies in Alberta have been steadily increasing the quantity of oil extracted. Alberta Energy notes in 2011 crude bitumen production in Alberta reached over 1.7 million barrels of oil per day, and the ministry estimates that number will more than double by 2021.

But when it comes to eliminating spills and seepages, and cleaning up after the incidents, we don’t hear a lot of boasting from individual companies or industry.

One would think, with the amount of spills that have happened over the years, companies would have at least mastered the mitigation and clean-up routine, right? Not so much, as we found out from the CNRL sites, which as of Aug. 2, where still seeping bitumen and thus creating more of a mess to clean up, if it can even be cleaned up properly.

There have been some protests, a few public meetings, a number of lawsuits and other forms of recourse individuals and groups have taken to stand up for the environment and against recurring oil spills. But it seems for the most part Albertans are either unaware of the number and severity of oil spills and seepages occurring regularly in the province or they have become desensitized to them.

It takes a lot for an oil spill to grab our attention, but it shouldn’t. We all have a role to play in protecting the places we live from contamination and destruction. That includes the oil industry, which has a responsibility to openly report and act on spills and other mishaps and the government which has a responsibility to regulate and enforce the oil industry. But, most importantly the public has a responsibility to keep the pressure on industry and the government to hold up their ends of the bargain.

*The Nouvelle would like to clarify, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), “any spill of any quantity off a company’s lease site must be reported to the AER,” while any spill less than 2,000 liters (2 cubic meters) within a company’s lease site is not required to be reported.

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