Canada pioneers new kind of oil spill — will Colombia, Venezuela keep up?

Turns out that when you inject high-pressure steam into heavy oil reservoirs underground, you can’t always predict which way the oil will go.

Oil spills at a major oil sands operation in Alberta have been ongoing for at least six weeks and have cast doubts on the safety of underground extraction methods, according to documents obtained by the Star and a government scientist who has been on site.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has been unable to stop an underground oil blowout that has killed numerous animals and contaminated a lake, forest, and muskeg at its operations in Cold Lake, Alta.

The documents indicate that, since cleanup started in May, some 26,000 barrels of bitumen mixed with surface water have been removed, including more than 4,500 barrels of bitumen…

The company says it is effectively managing and cleaning up the spills.

The company’s operations use an “in situ” or underground extraction technology called “cyclic steam stimulation,” which involves injecting thousands of gallons of superhot, high-pressure steam into deep underground reservoirs. This heats and liquefies the hard bitumen and creates cracks through which the bitumen flows and is then pumped to the surface…

“We don’t understand what happened. Nobody really understands how to stop it from leaking, or if they do they haven’t put the measures into place.”

This might explain why Maracaibo has had so many mysterious oil slicks in recent years, when state oil company PDVSA has insisted that its pipelines aren’t leaking. (Here’s one from 2012.) There is a lot of steam injection into fields under the lake.

Also, heavy oil fields in the Colombian llanos (wet plains) are slated for “enhanced recovery” that may at some point include steam injection. I hope this situation in Alberta is taken as a lesson.


4 thoughts on “Canada pioneers new kind of oil spill — will Colombia, Venezuela keep up?

  1. gustavo Coronel

    It would be nice to know from an engineer urrently operating in the Lake area. As far as I remember there is no steam injection going on in the lake itself but in areas onshore, certainly on the east side, Lagunillas, Tia Juana, etc and probably in Boscan on the west side. What I do remember is that the bed of the lake is full of pipelines, big and small, and these seem to be the main culprits since maintenance has not been done properly.

  2. Kepler

    Me pregunto cómo se vera la Tierra en tres décadas con la combinación de nuevos métodos de inyección de vapor por un lado y fracking por el otro: “José, no te pongas de aquel lado de la mesa porque sale nafta por aquí”.


    Do they have actually clear plans of those pipelines or is it more like
    “I remember Pedro said the other day there was a big pipeline a meter to the left or to the right of that genip tree”?

    1. gustavo coronel

      There are maps of the lake bottom pipelines but I have no idea if they are up to date or if they stopped being updated 15 years ago. Usually when an aspect of maintenance fails the whole system collapses. So many crimes have been committed by these people!

  3. marzolian

    I grew up around the lake, and there have been massive steam injection projects since the 60’s. More onshore, but quite a few offshore also. Although there has always surface seepage both onshore and off, I never heard about any crack that could have permitted the disaster going on in Canada now. In those days of openness in the oil industry, everybody would have known about it.

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