Richard & Liz Bergeron

Calgary’s Real Estate Specialists

Richard's Cell: 403-819-2331 | Liz's Cell: 403-875-8470

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A quartet of spills in northern Alberta has been oozing bitumen emulsion for more than a year with no sign of stopping, and the provincial regulator’s latest report finds the oil company’s own extraction method could be partly to blame.

A massive tailings pond breach sends a wall of potentially toxic mine waste flooding through central British Columbia.

Which garners more outrage?

The second one – by a long shot.

Mount Polley mine‘s tailings pond breach in B.C. has sparked a state of emergency as residents’ tap water is deemed unusable and provincial authorities scramble to determine just how toxic the spilled wastewater is, where the sludge went and what’s in the suspended solids.

Mine owner Imperial Metals has seen its share prices tank about 40 per centin the days following the breach.

Canadian Natural Resources Limited, on the other hand, has been barely bruised by the months-long series of spills at its Cold Lake site, even after an Alberta Energy Regulator report concluded the company’s high-pressure steaming is just too much for the rock, causing it to fracture and leak bitumen.

That conclusion’s a big deal, said Dinara Millington, vice-president of research with the Canadian Energy Research Institute: It suggests the operation itself is unsound, and has implications beyond these four spills, or even CNRL’s operations in that area.

“The regulator has been called by the public and Pembina Institute and other environmental institutes to  undertake a study where they would be looking at [cyclical steam stimulation] in general, and whether it’s even appropriate in a place where CNRL is,” she said.

“It will set a huge precedent for anyone who wants to get into that area.”

But shareholders don’t seem concerned: CNRL’s share price sits at about $44 now, compared to $31 a year ago.

And the public outcry in the days following B.C.’s tailings spill so far exceeds any outrage connected to Alberta’s ongoing bitumen spills.

Calgary billionaire Murray Edwards is Imperial’s controlling shareholder, as well as CNRL’s chairman and founder.

Why the divergent responses?

From a shareholder perspective, it could be a simple evaluation of risk, Millington said.

“CNRL, as a company, has large reserves, large assets large capital invested into various projects …  they could, for example, if the regulator says to walk away from the [Cold Lake] project, they have options.”

The sharply different reaction for Imperial Metals, she said, “Is directly related back to the concept of social licence: whether the company has that social licence, whether they’ve been able to obtain it and retain it. … You need to continue with what you said you were going to do, which is being the environmental steward of the land that you’re occupying. “

And the intimation from both the B.C. government and former employees that there were problems with the tailings site that should have been addressed earlier likely doesn’t inspire confidence, she said.

The tailings breach also has a more immediate and more visible human impact than the months of bitumen seeping from what is, effectively, a weapons range that’s a fair distance from even more remote First Nations communities.

But that just makes its effects more insidious, she said.

“We don’t know what the long-lasting impact can be – the emulsion can be seeping into the underground water resources or reaching small lakes and rivers and streams.”

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CALGARY – Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. is seeking approval to resume crude extraction from the part of its Primrose East oilsands property where a bitumen-water mixture was found oozing to the surface last year.

But the Calgary-based company said it’s planning to use a different steaming method that it says would avoid the problems that may have led to the high-profile leaks in eastern Alberta, which are still being investigated by the province’s energy watchdog.

Canadian Natural filed an application to the Alberta Energy Regulator last week asking for permission to inject steam at low pressure in a technique known as steam flooding.

READ MORE: 2 provinces, 2 environmental disasters, 2 very different responses

Previously, Canadian Natural had injected steam at high-pressure using a technology known as cyclic steam stimulation, the safety of which has been questioned by environmental groups. With that method – often described as “huff and puff” – a well alternates between injecting steam and drawing the softened bitumen to the surface.

On a conference call with analysts Thursday, Canadian Natural president Steve Laut says it’s “not possible” for steam flooding to create the same conditions that led to the Primrose East leaks.

Cyclic steam would enable production to ramp up more quickly, but rates over the long term are expected to be the same if steam flooding is used instead, said Laut.

“I wouldn’t see much of a drop in overall yearly average production from a steam flood at this stage versus a cyclic program at this stage,” he said.

The AER has said it won’t allow steaming to resume until it’s convinced all the risks have been addressed.

Last month, the energy watchdog said it had a better idea of what went wrong at Primrose. It said the main issues centre around Canadian Natural’s steaming strategy and on old wellbores around the site that have provided paths for fluids to flow to the surface.

Once a final report has been completed, Canadian Natural said it will apply to use cyclic steam on other parts of the Primrose East property. The section of Primrose East where the leaks took place, and where the company wants to use steam flooding, is a “unique area geologically,” said Laut.

Some 1.2 million litres of the bitumen-water emulsion have been recovered and 20.7 hectares have been affected. The company said on Thursday that clean-up is complete.

READ MORE: Steaming may have caused endless Alberta oil spills, CNRL admits

Thermal oilsands production for this year at Canadian Natural is expected to come in lower than previously anticipated, with the bottom end of the range lowered to 112,000 barrels per day from 120,000.

Some of that is due to the fact that it’s taking longer than expected to start steam flooding at Primrose East. As well, mechanical issues at Canadian Natural’s Kirby South steam plant are causing production to ramp up more slowly than planned.

Earlier Thursday, Canadian Natural said it more than doubled its second-quarter net earnings, helped by increased sales and higher prices.

The Calgary-based oil and natural gas producer reported profits of $1.07 billion, or 97 cents per share, versus $476 million, or 44 cents per share a year ago.

Adjusted profits were $1.04 per share, which beat analyst expectations by six cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters.

Company-wide production for the three months ended June 30 grew 31 per cent to 817,471 barrels of oil equivalent per day.

Realized prices for its crude oil averaged $87.03 per barrel, up nearly 16 per cent from the same period a year earlier.

Product sales rose to almost $6.11 billion from $4.23 billion.

Shares of the company were down more than 2.5 per cent at $44.68 in afternoon trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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