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Reclaiming abandoned well sites

Lola Adeniran is the Strathmore Standard's Lifestyles and Strathmore Town Council reporter. Contact her with any and all information, story tips or concerns at 403-934-3021 ext. 304.

By Lola Adeniran, Strathmore Standard

Tens of thousands of oil and gas wells sit unproductively on the landscape; either suspended or abandoned the unclaimed well sites reflect liabilities and environmental impacts.

Few regulatory tools exist to prescribe timely abandonment and reclamation and this leads to continued delay in dealing with environmental impacts.

“There’s a recognition that there’s a delay in abandoning and reclaiming well sites, but there’s a legacy of tens of thousands of sites that have been there for a while,” said Jason Unger, Staff Counsel with the Environmental Law Centre (ELC). “On public land it can have a variety of environmental impacts on wildlife species and on private land the landowner wants things to be cleaned up and there’s no way to enforce clean up in that regard.”

According to the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development website, there were 50,417 uncertified wells remaining at the end of 2011. Approximately 35 per cent ,or 17,611, of uncertified wells were abandoned between 1963 and 2002. Over the last ten years, approximately 14, 277 wells were drilled per year and 4,111 were abandoned with 1,682 were certified.

Unger said current policies and regulations are ill equipped to properly deal with unwarranted delays in addressing the impacts of wells that have sat suspended and unreclaimed for years.

Unfortunately, the regulations in place do not address the issue in a timely manner.

“ …the industry is going to deal with them when and how they see fit so its relied on a lot of discretion on the industry. Now over the last while we see that it isn’t getting better the reclamation isn’t occurring; more wells are approved and [equally] remaining in a state of suspension or abandonment. The land and related infrastructure isn’t getting cleaned up in a timely fashion,” said Unger.

A report produced by the ELC called Reclaiming Tomorrow Today, proposes specific regulatory amendments that would see abandoned sites and related infrastructure begin the reclamation process within 1 year.

Suspended sites would have to justify their continued suspension through an application to the Regulator, resulting in the well being designated inactive. Where continued suspension is not justified, abandonment of the well site would be required within 9 months.

As the Government of Alberta’s plans of moving energy activities to a “single energy regulator” draw near, the ELC report believes its the opportune time to address the continuing impacts on biodiversity, landowner rights, and ecological function.

“These regulatory timelines will provide concrete environmental benefits to Albertans and assist in managing the cumulative effects of our energy development.  It is one step in what needs to be a broader strategy to reign in impacts on our environment,” says Unger.

The ELC proposal would see two separate systems of abandonment and reclamation, one for private land and one for public. The private land proposal enables a landowner to object to ongoing suspensions which might then lead to a written hearing about whether the ongoing suspension is justified. 

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