Bands concerned about environmental impact on traditional lands
By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON - First Nations on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range are angry they were not consulted about oilsands company CNRL’s plans to drain a small lake to figure out how to contain bitumen leaking into the water.
Draining a lake is potentially a major disruption to the ecosystem on traditional lands and raises serious questions about the safety of CNRL’s high pressure steam extraction method, says Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree.
“This area will never be the same and it shows the damage oilsands spills can cause and just how little we know about this type of underground technology,” said Lameman.
Earlier this spring, CNRL reported four sites where bitumen is seeping to the surface, including under the small lake on the Primrose lease site near Bonnyville.
An environmental protection order from Alberta Environment this week requires CNRL to drain the lake, isolate and contain the leaking bitumen and restore water to the rest of the lake in the spring — though the company’s plans for containing the leaking bitumen must still be approved by the department.
The company said it also requested the order so it could drain the lake before winter sets in and find a permanent way to contain the seeping bitumen.
Alberta Environment spokesman Trevor Gemmell said consultation with First Nations and other communities is not required “if immediate action is needed to fix an environmental problem – as we see in this case.”
The order requires CNRL to produce reports and share information with stakeholders and First Nations, he added.
But Lameman said there should have been consultation before the order was issued. “It is not natural to drain a lake,” said Lameman.
A second band, Cold Lake First Nation, said the government should undertake a public inquiry into the safety of in situ technology (using deep wells to pump steam into the ground to extract bitumen) that will be used more widely than open-pit mining.
The band does not want other communities “to face the same dramatic impacts that we are,” said spokesperson Brian Grandbois in a release.
In its high-pressure, cyclical steam process, CNRL pumps steam at 300 C deep underground, then allows it to sit there for a couple of weeks as pressure builds up and melts the bitumen which is then pumped back up the same well.
In a different process, steam-assisted gravity drainage uses two wells, one to pump down the steam and the other to bring up the bitumen immediately.
The Alberta Wilderness Association also called for a halt to further bitumen extraction in the area until there is an independent review of major issues, including how to prevent further underground blowouts and water quality.
CNRL says the leaks are caused by faulty well bores which allow the bitumen under pressure to move toward the surface and into fissures in surface cap rock.
The Alberta Energy Regulator has not confirmed that as a cause of the leaking which started sometime last winter.
CNRL had a crew of 200 working this summer cleaning up the muskeg and the lake and building berms to contain the leaks.