The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

Steam Injection Fractures Caprock in Big Alberta Spill, Regulator Confirms

Incident highlights fragility of high-cost energy extraction.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 23 Mar 2016 |

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Nikiforuk's book on hydraulic fracturing, Slick Water, was published this fall by Greystone Books.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders. Please considering joining.

Three years after an eruption of 10,000 barrels of melted bitumen contaminated the boreal forest and groundwater near Cold Lake, Alberta, the provincial energy regulator has now officially blamed hydraulic fracturing, or the pressurized injection of steam into the ground for fracturing nearby rock.

The bitumen blowout occurred sometime between May and June 2013 at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Cold Lake project, an operation that uses steam injection to melt bitumen and bring it to the surface.

In this case, the pressure from the steam cracked rock between different formations, allowing melted bitumen to find natural fractures and flow to the surface at five different locations, including under a lake.

In some places, the bitumen erupted through fissures in the ground as long as 159 metres deep.

The event, not the first of its kind as an earlier Tyee investigation revealed, killed wildlife and seeped nearly 20 barrels of bitumen a day into muskeg over a five-month period.

In a lengthy report, the Alberta Energy Regulator concluded what experts had suggested all along -- that all five bitumen seeping events "were caused by excessive steam volumes, along with an open conduit (wellbore or natural fracture or fault) or hydraulically induced vertical fractures."

According to the regulator, an independent third party expert panel that also reviewed the bitumen disaster found that the company, a major bitumen producer, had failed to properly account for geological faults and fractures in the region it was steaming.

That panel submitted "that CNRL's approach had insufficiently addressed the impact of geological variability" and how natural fractures would respond to increases in steam pressures.

In particular, the company did not properly address a new geohazard in the tarsands: the erosion of salt formations underneath bitumen deposits by the movement of groundwater.

The industry-funded regulator concluded that "CNRL did not contravene any rules in their use of their specific steaming strategy," but has since implemented regulatory requirements "designed to prevent a further incident and permanently reduce steaming volumes."

Fragile, inefficient operations

The incident, which cost Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. nearly $50 million to clean up, highlights the fragility of operations that fracture bitumen formations with high-pressure steam.

These energy-intensive projects, which often use more than three barrels of steam to produce one barrel of bitumen, now produce the majority of Canada's bitumen for export. At current oil prices, such inefficient operations are losing money.

Approximately 80 per cent of Alberta's bitumen deposits lie deeper than 75 metres and cannot be mined. The majority of bitumen extraction now comes from steaming operations that use gravity or waves of steam to melt a resource as hard as a hockey puck.

As a consequence, the deep deposits, all capped by rock, are currently being heated to as high as 300 C with steam.

During the steaming process, the overlaying caprock acts as a primary but not always impermeable seal that keeps steamed bitumen from seeping into aquifers, industry wellbores and other geological formations, as well as the forest floor and lakes.

For years, geoscientists as well as annual industry progress reports to the Alberta Energy Regulator consistently showed that the technologies used to steam deep deposits have created the same sort of problems now plaguing the hydraulic fracturing of unconventional oil and gas resources across North America.

Both technologies inject highly pressurized fluids (gas, water, steam or hydrocarbons) into formations, where the resulting pressure can crack or fracture overlying rock and well casings in unpredictable ways. These fractures can bring fluids or gases to the surface, contaminate groundwater or connect with other existing wells.

Across North America, hydraulic fracturing has triggered earthquakes, pushed gases to the surface, connected to natural faults and fractures, "communicated" with other wells, damaged nearby wellbores and contaminated groundwater.

The ongoing problem for industry is that it can't control where the fractures will go or what natural faults they might connect with.

In Canada's heavy oil production, the injection of steam has amassed a long case history of problems, including fracturing into well sites and other formations, steam leaks and blowouts. Fracking bitumen with steam has also mobilized arsenic and fouled groundwater.

Still waiting on caprock study

The large Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. bitumen spill occurred exactly at the same place where another major leak occurred in 2009. The regulator did not report on that event until years later.

The new regulator report confirmed that caprock "is being compromised during high pressure cyclic steam stimulation" at CNRL's Primrose East project.

Injection pressures and steam volumes used by CNRL "either activated existing fracturing and faulting" of caprock or "altered the stress state enough to induce fracturing to enable releases of bitumen emulsion into the Grand Rapids Formation."

The bitumen then migrated up through natural fractures, faults, or vertical hydraulically induced fractures to the surface.

Cyclic steam injection, which pumps steam into a single well for weeks at a time allowing the steam to soak and build up pressure underground, has been plagued with technical problems for years.

In 2002, petroleum geologist Maurice Dusseault reported that steam injection due to high pressures caused "hydraulic fracturing out of zone, perhaps intersection with 'thief zones' and the opening of fracture pathways to water or the surface."

To deal with these major geohazards and the threat to caprock, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (now the Alberta Energy Regulator) created a special Oilsands Caprock Integrity Project seven years ago.

At the time, OCRIP's website specifically warned that "uncontrolled releases of steam, oil or formation water caused by in situ oil production (e.g. cyclic steam stimulation and steam-assisted gravity drainage) create concerns for resource and environmental conservation."

But OCRIP has yet to publicly release a promised analysis of "human-induced geological hazards" in the region, as well as an incident review database of steam operations that have broken the caprock. The project's website appears to no longer exist.

A 2011 paper written by employees of Schlumberger, an oil servicing multinational and fracking expert, warned that continuous steam injection can deform a bitumen formation so badly that it can "reduce rock strength, induce new fractures or re-activate existing fractures posing contained risk of containment of breach of caprock."

In turn, the fracturing of caprock "can provide pathways for bitumen and steam to flow to aquifers or to the surface causing significant risk to safety and the environment," warned the paper.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Are You Preparing for the Next Climate Disaster?

Take this week's poll