Alberta Energy Regulator ensures damages caused by pipeline, well leaks are remediated

Alberta has over 400,000 kilometres of pipelines and 180,000 active wells. Not surprisingly, they sometimes leak. What’s leaking and how are the leaks cleaned up?

Early May, 2013, Apache pipeline leaking water heavily contaminated with salt into the muskeg in the Zama region of northern Alberta.

In 2013 the Alberta government laid charges against Plains Midstream Canada in connection with a 2011 Rainbow pipeline spill, which released 28,000 barrels of crude oil near the hamlet of Little Buffalo in the Peace River region of Alberta.

The agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas industry leaks is the Alberta Energy Regulator, which operates at arms-length from the Alberta Government. Last year, the regulatory functions of the Energy Resources Conservation Board and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development into a “one-stop shop” for oil and gas development, the AER.

Oil and gas producers are required by law to report every pipeline, well, and equipment leak to the Alberta Energy Regulator. A summary of these leaks is available on the AER website. The incident report spreadsheet is a favourite of the “alternative media,” who use it as the basis for salacious and misleading headlines like, “Over 600,000 Litres spilled and not one Mainstream media writes about it.”

There is a reason media doesn’t report on almost all of the spills in the incident report: They are small, do minimal damage to the environment, and are easily cleaned up by the oil and gas producer, which is responsible for any and all damage done when its product escapes.

Nexen Energy July 15 pipeline leak of 31,449 barrels. Photo: CBC.

Sometimes a larger spill will capture the media’s attention. For instance, on Nov. 27 337 barrels (6 cubic metres, as reported by the Alberta Energy Regulator, which converts to 60,000 litres) of crude oil was released from a Canadian Natural Resources pipeline 27 kilometres north of Red Earth Creek, which is about four hours north of Edmonton. Global TV newscasts inaccurately called it a “major oil spill.” At worst, it was on the high side of a small spill. The oil covered an area half the size of a football field and required only a few days to clean up.

Cara Tobin is a media spokesperson for theAlberta Energy Regulator. She says the two products commonly leaked from pipelines and wells are crude oil and “produced water.” Both are considered toxic to soil, vegetation, and wildlife.

Generally, spills involve a combination of crude oil and produced water, which is brought to surface as part of the production process, according to Tobin. Produced water contains sodium chloride – common salt – and trace quantities of metals.

“Produced water toxicity depends on salt concentration,” she said in an interview. “And it also depends on the environment into which the produced water flows.”

TheAlberta Energy Regulator doesn’t track releases by their toxicity and consequences vary widely depending on the spill.

“Some of the incidents that have happened in the province have damaged and killed vegetation. Absolutely,” says Tobin. “Some of them have been, the salt concentration has been very low, and there has been no impact on the environment. Some of them have been higher and have had an impact where, for an example, a tree might have died.”

Prof. Tariq Siddique of the University of Alberta. Photo: University of Alberta.

Tariq Siddique is a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in soil remediation. Prof. Siddique says Alberta producers generally do a good job of remediation because they are legally liable for the damage caused by oil and produced water releases.

“If there’s any breakage of the pipeline, for instance, then they have responsibility and they may have to spend millions of dollars on fixing that. They are responsible,” he said in an interview. Beacon Energy News is planning follow up stories to explore just how well the oil and gas industry does at remediating public and private property in Alberta.

“Fixing” a site contaminated by oil or produced water means first determining the extent of the damage. Prof. Siddique says there are many remediation techniques that are used depending on the degree of contamination, size of the spill, and biology of the area.

If the contamination is minor, then the soil can be treated “in situ” (in its original place) using native micro-organisms. Sometimes the contaminated soil will be mixed with local uncontaminated soil before applying high phosphorous fertilizer to stimulate the growth of the micro-organisms.

The micro-organisms “use those hydrocarbon as a carbon source, like food. They will degrade it,” said Prof. Siddique.

If the spill area is larger, the producer may bring in thermal diesel equipment that heats up the soil to 200 to 300 degrees celsius, which turns the hydrocarbons into vapour that is captured and burned.

Or the soil may be excavated and trucked to a special landfill equipped to dispose of hydrocarbons and produced water.

“All remediation activity happens under the guidance and approval of the Alberta Energy Regulator. And companies are required to use the best available technology and practices,” says Tobin.

Prof. Siddique says there are many technologies and procedures producers and pipeline companies can use to remediate soil contaminated by oil or produced water, but the goal is the same in every instance: Restore the land to its previous state.

According to Tobin, that includes replanting native vegetation on the remediated soil. “It would have to be a similar environment…[done] under direct supervision of staff from theAlberta Energy Regulator and regular review and approval of the plans that detail how they are going to go about doing it.”

Primrose East bitumen leak from CNRL well.

Primrose East bitumen leak from CNRL well.

Yes, Alberta pipelines and wells and storage tanks and other equipment and facilities leak oil and produced water. Given the size of the industry and the volume of oil and gas produced and transported in the province, it would be astonishing if they did not.

A casual review of theAlberta Energy Regulator incident report for 2014 suggests 25 to 45 spills per month. Many of them are very small – just a few litres or barrels – but some are larger. And a few are cause for significant concern, like the 2013 CNRL spill at Primrose East where over 7,000 barrels of bitumen bubbled to the surface for months and contaminated 21 hectares.

The Alberta regulator has a comprehensive system in place to deal with oil and produced water releases, and the regulations are designed to return the contaminated land to its original state.

How well does the system work?

I’ll try to answer that question in future Markham on Energy columns and news stories, examining pipeline and well leaks in more detail, including how land is remediated and if the system works all the time for landowners, who are often farmers and ranchers or First Nations.

With any luck, we’ll come to a more informed picture of oil and gas leaks in Alberta. We couldn’t possibly do worse than the article – I refuse to call it news – linked to at the beginning of the column.