The Problem of Orphaned Oil and Gas Wells
- K.C. Adams -
active in the energy sector have refused to take responsibility for the
mess they leave behind. The problem of orphaned oil and gas wells
exposes a deep malaise within the current direction of the economy.
Enterprises have blinders over their eyes and refuse to look beyond the
money they make from their activities. They do not want to face the
truth that the immense productivity of the modern economy brings with
it not only riches in the immediate sense but responsibilities for its
effects on the social and natural world.
economy is unlike petty production of old that was mostly rural and
contained within a small area. Today the economy is large-scale and
global in scope. Modern industrial mass production and the world market
require extensive relations with other sectors and branches of the
economy at home and with peoples and economies abroad. Activity in the
modern economy greatly affects the social and natural conditions and
relations among humans and between humans and nature. All this must be
taken into account on a new modern basis. This means that those in
positions of authority in the modern economy must have a broad
consciousness of the effects enterprises have on the world.
old aim and consciousness inherited from petty production of serving
oneself and the property over which someone has control and ownership
are no longer suitable. In fact, the old aim has degenerated into
seeking maximum profit from ownership and control regardless of the
consequences of the activities of the enterprise on other parts of the
economy, on human relations and on the social and natural conditions.
This is clearly evident in the reality of thousands of
orphaned oil and gas wells that lie neglected by their former owners.
The enterprises and government officials in authority not only have
refused to hold themselves accountable for the damage they have caused
and left behind but also for the refusal to adopt a modern
consciousness regarding industrial mass production, which requires
having an all-sided plan to humanize the social and natural conditions
and infuse the economy with an aim to serve the people.
One billion dollars is the estimate
for the federal and provincial governments to clean up orphaned oil and
gas wells abandoned by private enterprise. A report prepared by the
federal parliamentary budget officer Yves Giroux says the $1 billion
cost of cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells in Alberta and
Saskatchewan dwarfs the money collected from industry to pay for it.
Map showing location of orphan
wells in Alberta.
The report says about 10,000 wells in Alberta
and Saskatchewan are currently orphaned. These wells are inactive and
have no apparent operator assuming responsibility to address the
environmental liabilities. Alarmingly, the report says the number of
orphan wells is growing by 35 per cent a year. Enterprises active in
the energy sector have put aside only $237 million in security deposits
to cover environmental damage, the report says, far below what is
Regan Boychuk of the Alberta Liabilities
Disclosure Project denounced the report's $1 billion as "a massive
underestimate and great disappointment. They left out the most
expensive part." The report does not include the cost to clean up
pipelines or other energy infrastructure on the land; it does not even
consider oilsands' projects or the more than 7,400 wells that are
abandoned but not yet considered orphaned. If those wells were included
the current environmental liability would more than double.
report also does not include any liability for 225,000 wells in Alberta
and Saskatchewan that are officially inactive or plugged but not yet
abandoned or orphaned by their owners. Nearly two-thirds of all wells
in those provinces no longer pump, the highest percentage ever, and
most wells declared inactive never start again and require immediate
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) says
the thousands of inactive wells not yet classified as abandoned or
orphaned, but without any authority taking responsibility for them, are
"releasing the equivalent of 545,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every
year." The AER says about 10 per cent of inactive wells and seven per
cent of abandoned wells leak pollutants into the air or land. Farmers
and ranchers regularly complain about poor conditions and weed control
around wells, which contaminate their crops and pastures.
also say the report of the federal budget officer does not include the
full cost of cleanup only those expenditures associated with tidying up
the land surface and removing equipment not the costs of remediating
ongoing contamination from underground chemicals or leakage. The report
itself acknowledges that "the exclusion of remediation will understate
the total cost of well cleanup."
To add insult to
injury to the public, the federal report says the government has
already devoted $1.7 billion to well cleanup and half of this amount
has been given to 10 "viable energy companies" including giants such as
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd and Imperial Oil.
limited conclusions of his report, budget officer Yves Giroux said,
"There isn't enough data on the highly variable costs of such cleanups
to make a meaningful estimate. The data is very limited on this. The
reclamation costs can vary greatly from one well to another."
Critics say no number in the report can be considered
"reliable, credible or defensible." For example, the report estimates
the average cost of plugging and reclaiming a single well to be about
$78,000, which is less than half the estimate from the Alberta
Liabilities Disclosure Project.
Regan Boychuk of
the Disclosure Project adds as well that the report's focus on orphan
wells is "misleading." "It's not about orphans," he emphasized, when
this means that all the other wells and infrastructure on the land not
yet classified as orphaned are not considered an environmental threat
with issues that need to be addressed immediately.
old narrow consciousness and aim of those in positions of ownership and
control are a big reason why they engage in such irresponsible
practices as abandoning oil and gas wells. Their narrow aim to serve
their private interests blocks the emergence of modern social practices
and consciousness. Working people must oppose the outlook which
sanctions this backwardness and bring into being an authority in
conformity with the modern conditions.
This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 2 - February 6, 2022