Orphan wells: Taxpayers could find yourself on hook, specialists say

Some Canadian corporations are spending public funds to scrub up their oil and fuel wells at a time when the {industry} is raking in historic income, but many wells stay deserted or unplugged, elevating issues about environmental and well being impacts on communities.

Because the {industry} prepares to reinvest the income from 2022, advocates say not sufficient is being finished to make sure the businesses, not taxpayers, cowl the price of remediating and reclaiming wells.

“We have not been doing it correctly for thus lengthy now, we’re at this type of disaster second the place we’ve got a lot that must be cleaned up, and never sufficient motion occurring,” Vanessa Corkal, coverage analyst with the Worldwide Institute for Sustainable Improvement (IISD), advised CTVNews.ca in an interview.

And because the variety of unplugged, deserted and orphaned wells rises, so do the chance prices, environmental prices and the chance that governments might want to spend rising quantities of cash to fund their cleanup, Corkal mentioned. Then, there are the under-studied well being implications for individuals residing close to wells.

The elements contributing to the difficulty transcend any single good or unhealthy monetary yr for the {industry}, specialists say, and fixing the issue will take the co-operation of the {industry}, regulators and the provincial and federal governments.


Most – 91 per cent – of the onshore oil and fuel wells dug in Canada are positioned in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Of the Prairie provinces’ 600,000 wells, solely 35 per cent in Alberta and 39 per cent in Saskatchewan have been actively producing oil and fuel as of 2020, in line with a 2022 report by Canada’s Parliamentary Finances Officer (PBO).

Lifecycle of a properly

Inactive wells are these which haven’t produced oil or pure fuel inside six or 12 months, relying on the classification.

Plugged wells have been crammed with cement and had their wellhead capped, however are usually not thought of reclaimed or remediated.

Remediated wells are plugged, with the contaminants surrounding them managed or eliminated and contaminated soil changed with clear soil.

Effectively websites are thought of reclaimed when the land at and surrounding the location has returned to its pre-development state.



The identical report discovered there was a big improve within the variety of inactive and unplugged wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan over the previous decade.

Of the roughly 17,500 orphaned and deserted wells within the two provinces as of 2020, 15,700 nonetheless wanted to be plugged and reclaimed. The variety of orphaned wells in each provinces grew at a price of 35 per cent every year between 2017 and 2022. In accordance with the report, this development was probably pushed by a drop in oil costs that started in 2014 and a subsequent {industry} downturn.

Primarily based on the Canadian Environmental Safety Act’s “polluter pays” precept, oil and pure fuel corporations are required to fund the price of properly cleanup.

A chart printed by the Workplace of the Parliamentary Finances Officer exhibits the variety of orphan and deserted wells in Saskatchewan and Alberta from 2007 to 2020. (Parliamentary Finances Officer)

Wells owned by a solvent firm which might be inactive however have not but been reclaimed or remediated are thought of deserted.

“Within the case of insolvency or chapter, it’s required that an organization deal with environmental liabilities earlier than paying again collectors,” the PBO’s report reads. “When there isn’t any identified, financially viable operator able to cleansing and shutting a properly, it’s thought of an orphan properly.”


Unplugged oil and fuel wells proceed to leak dangerous chemical substances into the air and groundwater lengthy after they’ve ceased to be productive. For that reason, they impose heavy environmental prices, danger to native environments and public well being and security issues.

“An deserted properly can nonetheless be releasing emissions…specifically contaminating the groundwater, but additionally within the launch of methane,” Corkal mentioned. “In order that’s important. And we speak about local weather change specifically as a result of methane is a really potent greenhouse fuel.”

A chart printed by the Workplace of the Parliamentary Finances Officer exhibits the variety of oil and fuel wells in Alberta between 2002 and 2020 by lifecycle standing. (Parliamentary Finances Officer)

Per tonne, methane can have as much as 86 instances the worldwide warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year interval, and 34 instances the influence over a 100-year interval, in line with the PBO’s report.

The U.S. Environmental Safety Company estimates every unplugged, inactive oil and fuel properly emits 0.13 metric tonnes of methane on common yearly. By this metric, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s 120,000 unplugged inactive wells produce a complete of 16,000 metric tonnes of methane yearly on common.

In accordance with a research printed within the scientific journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene in 2021, little analysis exists on the connection between deserted or orphaned oil and fuel wells and human well being.

Nonetheless, methane and benzene are identified to be dangerous to human well being, and the research’s authors say unplugged, inactive wells leak each pollution.

Analysis from 2013 has additionally proven that some non-public water wells inside three kilometres of pure fuel wells within the U.S. contained ranges of arsenic, selenium, strontium and complete dissolved solids that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Safety Company’s ingesting water most contaminant restrict.

Along with the environmental and well being prices, unplugged inactive wells additionally current a possibility price, because the land surrounding them is unsuitable for different makes use of till they’re reclaimed.


Plugging oil and fuel wells and restoring the land round them to its pre-development state could be very, very costly.

For instance, each Houston Oil and Gasoline Ltd. and Wolf Coulee Sources Inc. went bankrupt in 2019. On the time, the businesses had 1,422 and 177 wells left to be plugged and reclaimed respectively, primarily in Alberta. The price to scrub Wolf Coulee Sources’ wells is estimated to be $16.4 million, or $93,000 per properly on common. The price to scrub Houston Oil & Gasoline Ltd.’s properly is estimated to be $81.5 million or $57,000 per properly.

The PBO estimates the associated fee for onshore orphan properly cleanup in Canada will attain $1.1 billion by 2025. With a view to handle these prices, provincial power regulators throughout the nation have established legal responsibility administration applications. These applications require oil and fuel corporations to pay a refundable safety deposit to cowl decommissioning and reclamation prices in case their wells develop into orphaned –hence the “polluter pays” precept.


In 2021, the PBO estimated Alberta ought to have $415 million in safety deposits available to cowl the price of cleansing current orphaned wells. Alberta solely had $237 million available; creating a niche of $178 million. By 2025, the PBO initiatives that hole in funding will develop to $642 million with out extra funding.

As for that $178 million hole, that was what remained after the federal authorities offered $1.7 billion to the governments of British Columbia and Alberta, Saskatchewan in 2020 to assist remedy the issue, in line with the PBO report.

The cash was supposed to fund inactive properly cleanup and create alternatives for power sector employees who have been laid off because of the pandemic as a part of the federal authorities’s COVID-19 Financial Response.

“In a super scenario, the funding would have been allotted to orphan wells, to plug and ultimately reclaim the land across the orphan wells, these for which no viable firm was accountable or could possibly be anticipated to pay,” Yves Giroux, Canada’s Parliamentary Finances Officer, advised CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview.

One billion {dollars} of that funding went to the federal government of Alberta for web site cleanup and $200 million went to the province’s Orphan Wells Affiliation (OWA) within the type of a mortgage. The OWA is an industry-funded collaboration among the many Alberta Authorities, provincial regulators and oil and fuel producers based to handle the cleanup of the province’s orphan wells.

The remaining $520 million went to Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Giroux’s 2022 report mentioned the $1.7 billion ought to have been sufficient to cowl the price of cleansing up the {industry}’s inactive oil and fuel wells, nevertheless, just below half of the traceable funds in Alberta – $222 million – went to 10 financially viable corporations. In different phrases: to corporations that would have paid to scrub their very own wells.

Consequently, the report mentioned, there probably will not be sufficient funding left to scrub up the province’s precise orphan wells.

Regan Boychuk of the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Challenge (ALDP) says the federal authorities missed a possibility to connect situations to the funding which may have ensured it was higher used – situations his group really useful. The ALDP contributed among the analysis utilized in Giroux’s report and had beforehand urged the federal authorities to make your entire $1.7 billion a mortgage or use it to leverage {industry} regulation reforms which may guarantee all corporations cowl the associated fee to scrub their very own wells sooner or later.

“We advised them it will be a slush fund if there weren’t strings hooked up. We advised them to lend the cash, not give it as a grant,” Boychuk mentioned. “We have been begging for reforms.”

In hindsight, Giroux mentioned extra of the funding might need gone to remediating and reclaiming orphan wells if the federal authorities had had extra time to work on the coverage surrounding the switch.

“The truth that among the help went to corporations that have been financially viable and will have paid for the plugging and reclamation of their very own wells, I feel that was most likely a byproduct of a coverage that was developed with an enormous sense of urgency,” Giroux mentioned.

A joint research by Oxfam and the Parkland Institute has since concluded that the funding failed to maneuver the needle on orphan properly cleanup, since a lot of it went towards cleansing wells owned by solvent corporations who would have been obligated to scrub them anyway.

“It primarily confirmed authorities was subsidizing exercise that will have occurred in any other case, and there was not plenty of proof to point out that it was going above and past together with extra cleanup than would usually occur,” Corkall mentioned.

Boychuk has come to the identical conclusion.

“On the finish of the day, there isn’t any motive to count on something additional obtained cleaned up that will not have been cleaned up anyway,” he mentioned.


In accordance with public data stored by the Authorities of Alberta, Canadian Pure Sources Restricted (CNRL) and Cenovus Restricted have been two of the most important recipients of the 2020 funding, taking $168.9 million and $65.5 million in grants respectively.

How did these corporations carry out in 2022? CNRL reported an annual revenue of $10.9 billion, whereas Cenovus reported an annual web earnings of $4.9 billion, a 1018 per cent improve in comparison with 2021.

They weren’t the one Canadian oil and fuel corporations for whom 2022 was a historic earnings yr.

On March 1, the Canadian Affiliation of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) mentioned it expects oil and pure fuel funding in upstream manufacturing to surpass pre-COVID ranges, reaching an estimated $40 billion this yr. That determine represents a rise of $4 billion, or 11 per cent, in comparison with 2022.

That is to not say the {industry} is not doing any work to scale back its environmental influence. In Alberta a big chunk – $28 billion – of this yr’s upstream funding is forecast to go towards environmental safety and emission discount applied sciences, in line with the CAPP.

Richard Wong, the CAPP’s vp of operations, advised CTVNews.ca the {industry} has invested $2.8 billion into properly closure actions since 2018, and has elevated its contribution to Alberta’s orphan properly fund over the previous 10 years.

“This yr, the levy elevated to $135 million, which contributes to the discount of the orphan web site stock in Alberta,” he mentioned in an electronic mail. “Whereas there may be extra to be finished, CAPP is assured we’re heading in the right direction.”

For its half, Cenovus mentioned it goals to reclaim 3,000 decommissioned properly websites by the top of 2025.

“Between 2019 (and) 2021, we acquired 1,455 reclamation certificates from the Alberta Power Regulator and we proceed to progress our properly web site reclamation stock to closures,” Cenovus mentioned in an electronic mail to CTVNews.ca. “We’re now greater than half strategy to our goal.”

Cenovus didn’t reply questions on whether or not it raised, or plans to boost, its web site reclamation targets in response to the 2022 PBO report or to replicate its elevated income in 2022. CNRL didn’t reply to a request for remark by publishing time.


Regardless of “polluter pays” legal guidelines and the work of orphan properly associations, the variety of wells in want of reclamation appears to chronically surpass the {industry}’s capability to reclaim them.

Corkal and Boychuk each blame an incapacity – or unwillingness – on the a part of provincial power regulator to implement legal guidelines enshrined within the Canadian Environmental Safety Act and the Alberta Environmental Safety and Enhancement Act.

“It is not that there is not regulation in place,” Corkal mentioned. “One of many largest points is solely a scarcity of enforcement. It is not sufficient to have a legislation and a regulation, it’s essential to implement that regulation.”

Boychuk agrees, calling power laws developed and fine-tuned between 1971 and 1992 beneath Alberta premiers Peter Lougheed and Don Getty “the world’s premier power legislation.”

“Every thing you possibly can think about has a transparent, equitable path to an answer that respects {industry}’s rights and the general public’s proper,” he mentioned. “The issue is, exterior of 1971 to 1991, Alberta has not been capable of get the regulator to observe the legislation.

When introduced with these arguments, AER spokesperson Teresa Broughton advised CTVNews.ca the regulator is within the technique of growing “a broader safety framework that can be carried out in phases.” In January 2022, it launched a brand new minimal necessary spend as a part of the closure quotas for all oil and fuel corporations with inactive legal responsibility in January 2022.

Closure quotas specify the minimal amount of cash licensees are required to spend on closure work every year and are primarily based on an industry-wide closure spend goal set by the AER.

“Minimal necessary spend will assist improve the quantity of closure work that’s occurring within the province as a result of corporations will now be required to spend a minimal amount of cash on closure work every year,” Broughton mentioned in an electronic mail to CTVNews.ca. “The industry-wide closure quota for 2023 is $700 million.”

Nonetheless, in line with Corkal, smaller oil and fuel corporations have found that their greatest shot at avoiding safety and reclamation prices is to go bankrupt and skirt guidelines that require them to deal with their remaining environmental liabilities earlier than paying again collectors.

She cited the Redwater determination, a authorized case that started in 2016. Redwater Power was a small Alberta-based oil and fuel firm based in 2009. When the corporate declared chapter in 2015, its creditor and receiver grew to become liable for paying to scrub up the corporate’s services and pipelines.

Lenders argued that they need to have the ability to acquire income from the sale of Redwater’s remaining property, slightly than have these income cowl the price of web site reclamation. In that case, the OWA could be left to cowl the price of cleanup. The Alberta Court docket of Queen’s Bench dominated within the lenders’ favour in 2016.

Though the Supreme Court docket overturned the ruling in 2019, Corkal mentioned the case demonstrates how simply governments can select to implement – or not implement – “polluter pays” legal guidelines when an oil or fuel firm recordsdata for chapter.

Broughton mentioned it doesn’t fall throughout the AER’s scope of accountability to “management or forestall an organization from going bancrupt,” however that the Redwater determination did result in some change in the way in which it manages any cash left over when an organization goes bankrupt.

“Following the Supreme Court docket of Canada’s Redwater determination, the regulator works to make sure that any remaining funds within the property are used for web site cleanup on remaining property earlier than collectors are repaid,” she mentioned.

When there isn’t sufficient cash left over to reclaim an bancrupt firm’s remaining wells, the AER designates them as orphans they usually develop into wards of the Orphan Effectively Affiliation.


For an issue that has grown thus far out of hand, Corkal and Giroux say the options are fairly self-evident.

One resolution they each proposed is that governments maintain the {industry} extra accountable by making use of strict situations to any public funding they supply sooner or later.

“How they wish to operationalize that, whether or not or not it’s by offering monetary ensures which might be launched as soon as wells are licensed to have been correctly closed, that is as much as people who find themselves extra educated concerning the technicalities surrounding plugging and reclaiming wells,” Giroux mentioned.

Just like the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Challenge, Corkal mentioned the IISD has advocated for the federal authorities to mortgage the cash, slightly than give it away. Some mortgage situations might embrace requiring corporations to have net-zero carbon plans in place, making certain the funds are used to subsidize exercise that’s above and past what corporations would have paid for on their very own and making certain the funds are solely offered to corporations that may’t afford to reclaim their very own wells.

Different options embrace setting stringent safety bond necessities, “so corporations must show in some monetary capability, earlier than they even begin to drill a properly, what they’ll do to scrub it up inside a sure period of time,” Corkal mentioned. She mentioned extra work must also be finished to watch chapter courts and keep on prime of corporations teetering on the sting of insolvency.

“Are we monitoring which corporations are going to go bankrupt and being extra proactive about figuring out the place these liabilities are? I feel that will assist to forestall the issue from getting worse,” she mentioned.

The way in which Giroux sees it, if Canada’s power regulators cannot work out how you can implement “polluter pays” legal guidelines and orphan properly associations cannot afford to plug and reclaim all of the orphan oil and fuel wells, governments might want to step in and pay the cleansing invoice. The choice, he mentioned, could be to go away the wells unplugged.

“In the event that they find yourself orphan wells, it is not possible that an organization will volunteer to scrub them up until there may be sufficient oil and fuel left to be extracted for it to be definitely worth the firm’s whereas,” he mentioned.

“So two massive choices are to go away them as they’re, or extra public funds are put into plugging and reclaiming.” 

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