Cleanup of Alberta’s Abandoned Oil Wells Could Cost $70 Billion

If companies can’t pay, taxpayers could be on the hook.

Photo by Larry MacDougal / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Scattered across Alberta are more than 300,000 oil and gas wells. About 167,000 of them are inactive and abandoned wells that a coalition of landowners, researchers and former regulators call a “ticking time bomb” that will eventually leak, polluting farmlands, forests, waterways and even playgrounds.

Oil and gas companies are legally required to clean up these wells through a reclamation process, but there is no timeline for when they have to do so. And an increasing number of companies can’t pay the cleanup cost.

Ahead of next week’s provincial election, the coalition called the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project has released internal documents from the Alberta Energy Regulator that show the estimated cost of cleaning up these wells is between $40 and $70 billion.

That’s much higher than the regulator’s publicly disclosed number of $18.5 billion for the cleanup of oil and gas wells, excluding steam-assisted oil sands production.

The coalition is calling on all political parties to commit to releasing independently verified estimates of Alberta’s environmental liabilities, if elected.

“For decades, we’ve looked the other way as the number of aging oil and gas wells threatening farm lands and drinking water continues to grow,” Regan Boychuck, lead researcher for ALDP, said in a news release. “The Alberta Energy Regulator hasn’t come clean on how much it will actually cost to deal with this mess, but our new data raises the floor of the debate. We need the government to tell Albertans the truth, so we can make a plan to deal with this ticking time bomb.”

The NDP has promised in its platform to “implement clear timelines for when companies need to clean up their abandoned oil and gas wells and require them to justify delays in reclaiming sites.”

Jason Kenney’s UCP platform says the party would create “a framework to reclaim abandoned wells in Alberta.” The party says it will “streamline” the process for abandonment and reclamation to “reduce costs” and “increase the rate” at which wells are abandoned. It also says it will work with AER and industry to ensure liabilities are covered without discouraging new investment. The party also promises to ask the federal government to provide tax incentives to encourage reclamation.

In their platform, the Alberta Liberals propose an “oil patch cleanup bond” to make companies pay, and say they will set timelines for reclaiming well sites.

In 2018, the Toronto Star, National Observer and Global News obtained an internal presentation from the regulator that estimated the cleanup cost of all mining, oil and gas wells and pipelines at $260 billion—much higher than the AER’s public estimate of $58 billion.

The regulator later walked back that number, saying it was “based on a hypothetical worst-case scenario” and it was trying to “hammer home” the liability message to the oil and gas industry.

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