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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“More Agreement than Not” — Canada’s Premiers in 2012

by John Brian Shannon

It was heartening to see Canada‘s Premiers working together today on the challenges facing Canada, it’s provinces and citizens. A provincially-led era of common-sense has appeared across the political spectrum in this country. How reassuringly Canadian.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall felt comfortable enough to make the statement that between the provinces, there is “more agreement, than not.” New Brunswick Premier Robert Ghiz standing beside him indicated his full agreement.

Why can’t politics always be like this?

And I was pleased to see a high level of cooperation between the provinces on the topic of health-care. The Premiers want to lower costs for patients, enhance health-care  and harmonize their somewhat disparate systems. As I said, heartening.

Downplaying Northern Gateway pipeline tensions

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark quite rightly states that BC will be taking all of the risk where the Northern Gateway pipeline is concerned, while so-far receiving little benefit under the present proposal.

In fact, the number of Canadians who will actually benefit from this pipeline over its proposed 30-year lifetime are surprisingly few.

It must be said that during the one-year pipeline construction period, a few thousand temporary jobs would be created. But no more than a handful of oil executives will benefit, but benefit they will — handsomely. And it’s not rocket science to do the math on oil and pipeline company stock market shares, as American citizens own far more of these stocks than any other national group. Less than 15% of the total stock in this market segment are owned by Canadians.

From the British Columbia standpoint, does it really matter to BC citizens if some Ontario or Texas oil executive can afford to buy yet another Bentley at Christmas?

Especially when the risk of damage to wildlife, citizens and to the economics of the region could be catastrophic. Tourism, fishing, forestry, farming and real estate values can dramatically change for the worse in the case of only one major spill. Taken together, these sectors represent billions of dollars per year for the people of BC.

It might interest you to know that under the Canadian Constitution, resources are owned by individual provinces on behalf of the citizens of those provinces. As the owners of these resources, citizens nowadays have precious little say in how they are accessed, developed or sold — and to which entity they are sold. Let alone have any say on the per-tonne selling price of those resources for decades of time.

Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia, acting with parallel support from the leader of BC’s official opposition party, the Honourable Adrian Dix, has questioned the present situation and both politicians have called for an examination of risk/net benefit for British Columbia’s citizens in this matter.

The next logical step is to hire the most reputable, global, petroleum-wise accounting firms available, to have them determine the cost to repair damage to the environment and to cover employment and profit losses resulting from the worst-case oil spill at sea — or wherever the pipeline route crosses the interior of this scenic province.

Whatever the full cost happens to be for a full clean-up and remediation along with the full compensation costs for affected individuals and businesses, that should be the minimum price of admission in order to receive the necessary permissions and permits to build and operate an oil pipeline route  through BC — or through any province for that matter.

A worst-case scenario security-deposit is what all British Columbian‘s should require of companies wishing to cross BC territory with oil pipelines or oil shipping terminals located in the province.

If the appropriate deposit is paid in full and in advance, at that point, even I will put up with an oil pipeline and trans-shipment terminal in BC. Especially if the highest standards and practices are put into place to ensure lower risk for British Columbia.

When a pipeline gets taken out of service (and removed) after years of successful operation (without a single spill) the security deposit — principal only — should be returned to the company.

You’d think that insurance companies would be all over this.

If these proposals were passed into law, it might encourage oil execs to direct their teams to build world-class pipelines which never leak and require the use of double-hulled supertankers as part of their corporate policy. Double-hulled tankers are the law in the EU (since 1996) and the U.S.A. (since 1990) and both have in place, severe penalties for non-compliance. In the GCC nations and Japan it is long-standing convention (but not law) that double-hulled tankers are required anywhere close to the coastline.

Canada, with the most scenic coastline on the planet located here in the province of British Columbia, has no such law nor convention. Pathetic.

IF the price formula outlined above seems too high for pipeline or shipping companies, that’s too bad. We don’t need it. We’re not getting anything from it except risking the wealth and beauty of our province, so take it somewhere else. No really, please. Take it somewhere else.

We can’t jeopardize British Columbia’s pristine coastline, wilderness, rivers, creeks, lakes, farmland and ranchlands. Nor can we risk BC’s entire multi-billion dollar tourism, fishery and forestry industries and the hundreds of thousands of jobs they provide, because comparatively small numbers of people in Alberta, Ontario and the U.S. want a shiny new car next year.

John Brian Shannon writes about green energy, sustainable development and economics from British Columbia, Canada. His articles appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint Asia, EnergyBoom, the Huffington Post, the United Nations Development Programme – and other quality publications.

John believes it is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

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