Environmental groups are giving Alberta’s energy regulator a rare pat on the back over its decision to delay approvals for certain types of oilsands projects over concerns about the intensity of development.
“It’s encouraging that the (regulator), despite the pressure to increase development, is willing to take a pause when it’s required,” said Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.
In late January, the Alberta Energy Regulator announced it would delay approval for all oilsands proposals in a 1.2-million-hectare region around Fort McMurray that planned to use unconventional steam injection to recover bitumen from shallow deposits.
The regulator said it was increasingly concerned non-conventional drilling in the area could be degrading the ability of subterranean rock to keep bitumen trapped underground.
“The intensity of development is increasing and we don’t see it slowing down,” said spokesman Darin Barter. “We’re seeing increased applications and increased development in that area and we want to make sure that, going forward, we’re not playing catch-up.”
Developments using steam to extract bitumen are expected to ultimately be responsible for up to 80 per cent of Alberta’s production.
Barter said the regulator is trying to avoid blowouts or seepages of bitumen forced through the rock layer by steam injection.
Flanagan said the method causes the layer, called caprock, to flex slightly. It’s not clear what effect that constant flexing from hundreds of wells is having, she said.
—By Bob Weber