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Alberta oil sands pipeline leak is one of North America’s largest ever spills

20 July 2015

Nexen Energy apologised on July 17 for the spill of 31,500 barrels of emulsion, a mixture of bitumen, water and sand, across an area of 16,000 square meters in an inaccessible area of the province. The Alberta Energy Regulator said the leak did not contaminate any water bodies and Nexen confirmed  the area has been isolated with clean-up crews working around the clock.

Stock image
Stock image

The company, a subsidiary of China's CNOOC Ltd., said it is still trying to find the root cause of the leak in the pipeline, which was new and installed last year. It found a visible breach about the size of a hand, which Nexen's automatic detection systems did not pick up.

The incident is another blow for the environmental record of the oil sands industry, already under fire from environmental groups for its carbon-intensive production process.

"We are deeply concerned with this and we sincerely apologise for the impact," said Ron Bailey, a senior vice president of Nexen who leads the company's Canadian operations.

"We have pipeline integrity equipment, some very good equipment," he said. "Our investigation is looking through exactly why that wasn't alerting us earlier."

The volume is larger than the July 2010 rupture of an Enbridge pipeline which spilled an estimated 20,000 barrels of crude, with some reaching Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

But because the spill was viscous bitumen emulsion, rather than oil, it should be significantly easier to clean up and less damaging to the environment, according to industry commentators.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said: "As much as everyone was concerned to hear it had happened, it did not actually in any way shake the conclusion … that pipelines remain the safest way to move hydrocarbon products." Notley's recently elected left-wing NDP government has pledged to toughen the province's environmental standards.

Nexen said restarting the pipeline, which connects its 9,000 barrel-per-day Kinosis oil sands project to Long Lake, will take "some time." Production from Kinosis will be shut in until the pipeline is repaired.

Long Lake, which has capacity of 72,000 bpd but is producing about 50,000 bpd, is 22 miles southeast of the oil sands hub of Fort McMurray.

The largest Alberta oil-related spill on record, according to the AER, was a 40,000-barrel release from a pipeline operated by Peace Pipe Ltd in December 1980. More recently, a Plains Midstream Canada pipeline failed in April 2011, releasing an estimated 28,000 barrels of oil in the northwestern part of the province.

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