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British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have so far approved almost half a billion dollars to reclaim about 15,610 inactive oil and gas wells, creating or supporting around 2,600 jobs in the process.

That’s just over 10 per cent of the almost 150,000 inactive oil and gas wells across the three provinces, of which nearly 8,500 are orphans (meaning no company has the legal or financial responsibility to return the sites to their natural state).

For the past 10 months, inactive wells have been the focus of a series of provincial programs rolled out with the aid of $1.7-billion from Ottawa, part of a strategy to keep Western Canadians in the energy sector working as the COVID-19 pandemic and decimation of demand threw the industry into disarray.

Last week, the three provinces each unveiled the next set of grants in their assorted well-reclamation programs, having finally hit their stride after initial teething problems with doling out the federal cash.

The well-reclamation fund stemmed from what federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O‘Regan called “a harrowing time” that affected hundreds of thousands of Canadian energy workers, as oil prices fell into negative territory.

His government wanted a short-term measure to keep people employed that would also come with a long-term environmental payoff. The reclamation program “fit the bill,” he told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview.

Ottawa left the rollout to provinces to tailor grants to fit their specific needs, rather than set up a new federal program, which would have likely taken months, he said.

Industry proponents and energy ministers acknowledge that a host of challenges accompanied the initial steps to dole out the federal cash.

The various provincial programs were “clunky at first,” says Mark Scholz, president and chief executive of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, largely as a result of the speed with which they were rolled out.

“But what’s happening right now is [the money] is doing its job as being a bit of a buffer as the industry begins to recover,” he said in an interview.

Petroleum Services Association of Canada interim CEO Elizabeth Aquin agrees.

While hiccups and wrinkles plague any pilot program, she says Alberta officials worked tirelessly to resolve problems in that province.

“I think it has paid off. We’ve got folks working. This is certainly a significant program, and I think it’s a success that jobs are being created,” she said.

While environmental groups have criticized the federal government for a grant they see as a bailout for oil and gas companies that have failed to clean up the messes for which they are responsible, industry and governments argue the money has helped keep people employed at a time of massive sector uncertainty.

Take Jeff Campbell, who owns DFA Contracting in Fort St. John, in northeast B.C. He has hired an additional 20 people to help complete the $3.4-million worth of well-reclamation work DFA secured in the first stage of the program.

Some of the wells he has been hired to reclaim have been dormant for 20 or 30 years. The trees are so thick on those sites his teams can hardly see the wells.

Mr. Campbell’s work has been steady because of the number of inactive wells in the region.

“It’s amazing how much stuff is actually out there. When you drive around, it’s just like, ‘Wow, this is everywhere,’” he said.

“It’s nice to see that we’re actually getting it cleaned up for environmental purposes and looking the way it once was.”

The majority of B.C. grants have gone to contractors in the northeast corner of the province, where most oil and gas extraction takes place.

In Saskatchewan, the reclamation program has created work from Lloydminster – which straddles the Alberta border east of Edmonton – all the way south to Estevan, just 16 kilometres from the U.S.

“We always wanted to make sure we covered the key [oil and gas] regions, so we’re really pleased with … how those numbers have come in,” the province’s Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre said in an interview.

It’s a similar story in Alberta. A map of the wells approved for reclamation there shows sites in almost every region, from the far northeast all the way down to the southern-most reaches of the province that flank the border with the U.S.

“We have over 600 Alberta-based companies that have received contracts, and it’s created over 1,500 jobs on the ground. So that’s success,” the province’s Energy Minister Sonya Savage told media Friday.

Ms. Eyre has a similar view. For Saskatchewan, she says, it’s about helping companies that were facing dire straits continue their operations and get people working.

“We see this program as fundamentally an economic stimulus program,” she said.

It has worked, but it irks her that the reclamation program paints a picture of dirty wells polluting the landscape.

Still, Mr. O’Regan said it’s crucial the energy sector do a better job of dealing with the abandonment of inactive wells.

“The Alberta government is working on a new liability management regime and we want to make sure that holds, that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for this again,” he said.

“That’s certainly my objective.”

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