Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Blowout shines spotlight on in situ’s impacts

For 36 hours this past weekend, a stream of high-temperature water and oil shot 12 metres into the air after a wellhead blew out at an in situ oil sands site just eight kilometres from the town of Conklin in northeastern Alberta. This incident points to the fact that in situ, contrary to industry claims, is not a benign or risk-free extraction method.

It's not known how many barrels of bitumen were released from Devon Canada's blown Jackfish wellhead, but the clean up is expected to take two to three weeks. Local residents are concerned about potential impacts to nearby Sunday Creek and the Christina River.

In situ impacts were examined when the Energy Resources Conservation Board investigated a blowout that occurred at Total E&P Canada's Joslyn Creek in situ oil sands site. The board found the company used steam pressures in excess of the approved levels and that's what caused the "catastrophic explosion." That blowout, while different in nature to this one, disturbed a large surface area and subsurface volume, and launched rocks several hundred metres into the air.

No sanctions or fines were applied for the incident since Total abandoned the site.

TheGoogle map of in situ oil sands activity in northern Alberta incident calls into question the notion, increasingly put forward by industry and government, that in situ is a safer, greener form of oil sands extraction than mining.

In situ projects get to bitumen that's too deep to mine, using drilling and steam injection. The Edmonton Journal's Graham Thomson said it well when he likened in situ to a "giant tic-tac-toe board with networks of roads and seismic lines criss-crossing a forest floor dotted with well pads and compressors."

With in situ production expected to surpass mining by 2017, the face of oil sands production will be changing, making it increasingly important to understand in situ's full impacts. Indeed, more than 80 per cent of Alberta's 140,000 km2 (an area about the size of Florida) of oil sands are too deep to mine, illuminating the fact that in situ's impacts matter.

Alberta land leased to oil sands development

We conducted a first-of-its-kind analysis of the environmental performance of in situ oil sands operations, comparing mining and in situ development side by side. Our resulting fact sheet revealed that in situ development is not an environmental gamechanger.

Associated impacts, in fact, are higher than those of mining in certain categories. In situ oil sands development is more greenhouse gas and sulphur dioxide intensive per barrel of bitumen than oil sands mining. While it would seem that oil sands mining would have a greater impact on Alberta's forests, the data suggests that from a cumulative perspective, in situ development may result in a greater loss of forest habitat. In situ also fares poorly when you factor in the loss of habitat associated with the increased gas production required to fuel in situ extraction. That means a typical in situ barrel may actually have a higher land footprint than a mined barrel of bitumen. This could have huge impacts on wildlife such as caribou, a threatened species in the area.

The bottom line is in situ oil sands development comes with significant impacts and risks - impacts and risks that shouldn't be downplayed. Cumulative impacts have the potential to extend across a very large landscape.

As conventional fuel sources dwindle, we're faced with the reality of riskier, high impact fossil fuels and that spells consequences such as Devon's and Total's blowouts, Syncrude's duck deaths and BP's oil spill. In response, do we continue down the same path or tighten regulations, improve performance and begin the transition to low impact and renewable energy sources? The choice is ours.

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