Uncontrolled bitumen spill at Cold Lake: more fake regulation of the tarsands

Janet Keeping, leader, Green Party of Alberta

We are just learning that CNRL’s tarsands project at Cold Lake has been spewing bitumen for about six weeks.  Worse, according to a government scientist on site, no one knows why this has happened or how to stop it.  According to Greenpeace’s Mike Hudema this is not the only CNRL bitumen project gone bad this year.  He says there have been four spills from CNRL tarsands operations since the beginning of the year but only now is the public learning of them.

What’s going on here?  Answer – reckless industrial activity allowed to run amuck by a government and regulator that doesn’t know what they are doing.  Harsh?  Yes, but also accurate.

Consider this account of the regulation of an in-situ tarsands project I learned of about three years ago.  I was asked to make a presentation at a conference on what ethical leadership on development of the tarsands would look like, were that goal to be taken seriously.  At the same event the CEO of a then new in-situ tarsands projects was also presenting, in his case about his company’s cutting-edge technology.

Always interested in the adequacy of government oversight of the energy industry, I inquired, did he think his project was being adequately regulated by the Alberta government?  Of course, he said, it was being properly regulated – that’s what the Alberta government does, isn’t it?  My follow up question revealed the fly in the ointment.  So how does the government click on this link regulate his company’s brand-new technology?  His answer:  the provincial government regulator hires people from his company to do the examination of his company’s project, and then, when that task is completed, those very people go back to work for that same company again.

So this, folks, is what it has come down to:  the fox is guarding the hen-house.  The very company whose proposals are supposed to be reviewed to make sure they meet government standards necessary to protect Albertans and the natural systems they depend upon is assessing whether those standards are being met.  Nothing could be a more blatant conflict of interest.

It cannot be said too often:  this is fake, not authentic, regulation and thus an insult to the intelligence, dignity and trusting nature of Albertans.  And by making a mockery of government regulation it undermines the rule of law.

Sadly, other examples of the same are easy to come by.  Recently we saw the premier claiming the tarsands tailings ponds have been shrinking when they aren’t – they’re growing in size– and the energy regulator claim it is committed to seeing them disappear when it has no plans whatsoever to enforce rules that would compel their reduction.

Further, a new report based on a study of provincial government records on environmental infractions by companies working in the tarsands shows that Alberta has enforced the applicable law in less than 1 % of those cases.  As a Greenpeace posting on the report concludes “Things are not under control – the tar sands industry in Alberta is essentially regulating itself. Prosecution is lax, oversight is non-existent, incidents continue to mount and the Alberta government isn’t doing much of anything about it.”

Back to what’s happening at Cold Lake.  I don’t know how this particular project got passed the regulator but, from what we now know, it looks very much as if neither the company nor the government regulator knew what they were dealing with:  neither knows why the spill has occurred nor how to stop it.  Approving development in the face of such ignorance is intolerable.

A government that was serious about protecting Albertans’ environment, health, and economy – for this kind of scandal can only harm efforts to sell Alberta bitumen into American markets – would not allow projects to go ahead until the regulator thoroughly understood the proposed activity and had put rules in place to prevent any unacceptable impacts.  If experts have to be brought in from other jurisdictions in order that unbiased decisions can be reached on whether projects are safe to proceed, so be it.  But pretending it is sufficient that companies regulate themselves is just ridiculous.

And a government that cared would actually enforce the law against companies that contravene the rules.

We don’t have a provincial government that is serious about protecting Albertans from the harms that poor performance in the energy sector can cause.  But we could.  One day Albertans will have had enough of this abuse and, like long-suffering victims of domestic violence, will finally decide to leave the relationship.  That liberating day cannot come too soon.

This opinion piece first appeared on the Troy Media website.  See


Comments 4

  • Well said Janet, If Alberta’s regulators loose credibility because of ignorance, greed or lazyness this will translate to a trust deficit worldwide. Its not just the Americans who are concerned about our tarsands. Thank you for keeping us informed (pardon the pun)

  • Janet, this is extremely troubling. The media reports that CNRL sites have been leaking for 10 weeks and it wasn’t until this, the 4th incident, that the new Alberta Energy Regulator took action. Unfortunately that “action” is pretty milquetoast. The AER suspended steaming within one kilometre of the leak and restricted steaming elsewhere. But the company and the AER still don’t know what happened or how to stop it.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to shut everything down until the company AND the regulator figured out what happened and developed an action plan to ensure that it never happens again. Doing anything less sends the industry the message that at most it will suffer a slap on the wrist. Hardly consistent with the AER’s role as industry watchdog.

    Susan Wright

  • When you don’t live in a democracy this is the kind of abuse that occurs in a foreign controlled corporate petro state ( just because you can vote every 4 years does not mean you live in a democracy) such as Alberta. Where foreign corporate oil companies dominate the politics with their economic power, oil companies get there way which is usually the abusive (pollution) way.

    Without a real Participatory Democracy Government, Albertans will continue to get the oil company “shaft”. We will suffer more pollution than we want, we will get far less royalties for resources than what we could achieve, we will have more foreign workers than what we want, we will not have sustainable resource use, and our economy will suffer in the future- because we don’t live in a democracy where people make the decisions for the benefit of the people. We instead live in a society which is overly influenced or brainwashed by foreign oil corporations that dominate our economy and “plug in” the politicians in our corporate integrated non democratic government. This is not what democracy looks like. It is what illogical corporate stupidity looks like which robs the wealth and natural environments of our province for the benefit of a few.

    Anything less than ” Rule by the People” is not democracy. Non democracy leads to more problems for the people like degrading health care, less wealth for all, and more pollution for all. CNRL’s “fracking” and subsequent blow-out is a demonstration of what occurs when the public is kept in the “undemocratic dark” CNRL uses subsurface high pressure to extract oil which results in fracturing of rock and or damage to rock formations. In this case it is highly likely that a clay cap rock was fractured due to high pressure put on the formation by CNRL’s activities. This is another example why fracturing is not good for the environment- there are too many unknown unknowns that engineers do not know about. Nobody can predict exactly what will occur underground. With a real democracy, however, we can create an environment of better knowledge- where people can voice their concerns without having to suffer consequences for providing solutions to problems ( The media has reported that this oil operation has suffered leaks previously but an environment of silence kept the “word” from getting out).

    Participatory Democracy or Rule by the People. Anything else is not real democracy and is not good for you.

  • It is my understanding that, in terms of oil sands, Alberta’s oil industry is the most technologically advanced in the world. There simply aren’t regulators in other jurisdictions more capable than what we have in Alberta.

    Moreover, the oil sands technology is essentially brand new and undergoing constant development. We don’t know what we don’t know, and realistically the only way to find out is by trial and error.

    The CNRL leaks are likely from old and abandoned conventional wells. Once the bitumen is steamed, becoming less viscous, it requires less pressure to be pulled from the ground. If there are abandoned and improperly capped wells in the area, you could see bitumen bubbling up through the path of least resistance.

    I don’t think there is anyone in the world that could have foreseen this specific issue. As more is learned about the ultimate cause, I trust that CNRL and their regulators will develop further rules and best practices that incorporate lessons learned from this particular spill.