Cold Lake Alberta oil spill is ‘unstoppable’

by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

The Alberta oil sands are either a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view

For some Canadians (and American guest-workers) the Alberta oil sands mean long-term employment with good wages, and the chance to raise a family in Canada’s north which, if you can tolerate the cold winters, is a beautiful place to raise an outdoors-oriented family, spending the weekends with your kids exploring the thousands of square kilometres of snowy mountains on snowmobiles, hitting the touristy ski slopes, and photographing sweeping prairie vistas.

For others though, the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands are a blight on the collective conscience of all Canadians and a black eye on Canada’s otherwise good reputation among nations.

Image courtesy:
Alberta Primrose oil spill — 6000 barrels of oil seep to the surface every two days, and officials concede there is no known way of stopping it — other than just waiting for it to stop. Image courtesy:


The battle for, or against, the harvesting of the oil sands resource see-saws back and forth. It is has turned into an epic battle between oil companies and environmentalists spanning decades of time, and very clear battle lines between the two groups were drawn long ago.

Renewed interest in the oil sands fight began in 2010, with news that Canada was allowing Chinese companies to purchase multi-billion dollar Canadian and American oil companies which operate in the oil sands region.

And when talks began with the European Union on a massive Free Trade deal between Canada and the EU in 2012, the oil sands business once more came under the media spotlight.

This time, the spotlight is on an ‘unstoppable’ oil spill near a Royal Canadian Air Force base, where the crude oil is bubbling up from deep underground at high pressure in four locations. One of the places where the oil is rising to the surface, is under a lake — which is making a mess of the once-pristine lake and adjoining forest, as more than 3 feet of oil floats on top of the lake and overflowing into the surrounding area.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported on August 1, 2013 that; “Nearly 1 million litres of bitumen leaked into bush on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range” – and the company is reporting the spill as “contained” and will “seep small amounts of oil for years”.

How reassuring NOT!

After bursting to the surface under pressure, the oil mixes with snow, water, and organic materials on the forest floor and the whole oily mess tumbles downhill, creating small ‘rivers’ of oil, heading toward the larger rivers and lakes common in the region.

Cara Tobin; “With any incident the company would go to the site and identify the outer boundaries of the affected area.

There’s two things – one is control and one is containment.

What they have done, to the best of my knowledge, is that they have identified the outer extent of the impacted area, which is generally called delineation. I think they were finishing that process [Friday]. And so they are getting to know and rope off the outer extent of the impacted area.

So that’s one thing. And that’s basically containment… In this case, this is still an ongoing incident. There is no control on this incident.” – Cara Tobin, Office of Public Affairs spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator

If the employees of Canadian Natural Resource Limited (CNRL) hadn’t reported the leak to the media, it may have gone unreported.

The company in charge of the High-Pressure Cyclic Steam Stimulation (HPCSS) oil extraction process (where high-temperature steam in injected deep underground to separate the oil from the sand it is embedded with) at first reported only one spill from one site — saying it had begun leaking only days before. Now we find out four boreholes have been leaking for months.

The one thing you need to know about about ‘unstoppable’ oil spills is that until the underground pressure lowers, the oil will continue pouring out. This de-pressurization might take a month, or it may take 60 years. Nobody knows for certain. It will stop when it stops.

In the case that anyone thinks that this is a minor matter, the total amount of oil trapped in the oil sands is roughly equal to the remaining total oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. Not that all of it will suddenly burst forth from these four locations and empty the entire mess onto the landscape, but there is opportunity at least, for major ecological disaster. There are millions of barrels of underground oil and it is under pressure and connected to thousands of similar boreholes in the area, which is why the oil companies are there, and not somewhere else.

Over the weekend, some 6000 barrels of oil overflowed into 51 acres of forest and lake country, and in some places the oil is one metre deep.

With no end in sight, no available man-made solution, and no future plan to control what is admittedly an ‘unstoppable’ oil spill — all we can do is wait.

And this has happened just when it looked like the oil companies were winning the public relations battle…

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