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Alberta oil patch threatened by wildfires

by Staff Writers
Ottawa (AFP) May 17, 2011
Wildfires forced evacuations in Canada's western oil-producing region oil on Tuesday, slowing or halting production of the largest oil and gas supplier to the United States.

Companies with operations near Slave Lake, Alberta, which was engulfed by flames this week announced disruptions and the evacuation of their employees and their families.

Penn West Exploration cut its production by 20 percent or up to 40,000 barrels of oil per day at operations in north-central Alberta threatened by a number of fires, and due to severe flooding in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces.

As well, the company has evacuated staff and their families from the Slave Lake region.

"The fires are viciously out of control," Penn West chief executive officer Bill Andrew told the daily Globe and Mail.

"The last thing you want is a bunch of oil and gas floating around when there's a fire," he said. "That's why you shut things in."

Canadian Natural Resources, meanwhile, evacuated a 1,300-person work camp near its Horizon Oil Sands operation as fires reached the doorsteps of lodges, and halted production of 3,125 barrels of oil and eight million cubic feet of natural gas in the Slave Lake region. Another 40,000 barrels of oil per day may be cut if a key pipeline to its Pelican Lake field is not restarted soon.

Cenovus Energy will also have to halt production at its Pelican Lake facility by Wednesday if the pipeline remains shuttered much longer due to the wildfires.

"We're putting the oil in storage tanks, but these are filling up quickly," Cenovus spokeswoman Rhona DelFrari told AFP.

"We've slowed production (from 22,000) to 16,000 barrels per day but eventually the tanks will fill up and we'll have to shut down production -- as early as Wednesday," she said.

There are significant wildfires burning in north-central Alberta impacting the producing areas of Peace River, Red Earth, Otter, Sawn Lake, Swan Hills, and Mitsue as well as smaller producing areas.

Dozens of companies have reported disruptions or said they are planning for quick exits if the fires spread.

Additionally, severe spring flooding in southern Manitoba and in portions of southern Saskatchewan is expected to force interruptions at oil and gas facilities in those provinces for several weeks or even months.

At an estimated 175 billion barrels, the Alberta oil sands are the second largest oil reserve in the world, but they were neglected for years, except by local companies, due to high extraction costs.

Since 2000, skyrocketing crude oil prices and improved extraction methods have made exploitation more economical.

At the same time, oil companies faced increased protests for creating toxic waste ponds so large they are visible from space and that seep into Alberta groundwater.

Environmentalists also criticized oil sands extraction for producing three to five times more carbon emissions than conventional oil production.

While conventional crude oil is pumped from the ground, oil sands must be mined and bitumen separated from the sand and water, then upgraded and refined.

In Slave Lake, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Edmonton, blackened streetscapes dotted with charred shells of automobiles and rows upon rows of the smoldering square outlines of homes is all that remains of several neighborhoods.

A wildfire engulfed the town on Monday, forcing the evacuation of its 7,000 residents at the start of the forest fire season. Almost half of the town was gutted.

Authorities said 100 forest fires, including 22 out of control, were raging in the region. Already they destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forests, despite the efforts of 1,000 firefighters to contain the blazes.

However, nobody has been injured, officials said.

In neighboring Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the spring thaw and heavy rains caused rivers to overflow, displacing nearly 4,000 people from homes and farms, according to officials.

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