Skip to main content

Orphan wells are those whose owners have gone bankrupt or can’t be found and whose clean-up costs are borne by the public through government funds.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Almost half of British Columbia’s orphan wells are located on the province’s most protected agricultural land, raising concerns about potential contamination.

Figures from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), the province’s energy regulator, show that of the 326 orphan wells (or wells with no solvent operator) currently identified by the commission, 145 fall within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), a designated zone set up to protect farmland.

Orphan wells are those whose owners have gone bankrupt or can’t be found. In British Columba, companies in the oil and gas industry must pay a levy intended to cover the cost of cleaning up orphan wells.​ Of the total in the province, only 16 have been restored – a process that involves certification by the OGC based on ensuring any contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water is below specified thresholds.

Story continues below advertisement

Twenty are expected to be restored by March.

The figures, provided in response to a request from The Globe and Mail, come amid heightened concerns about inactive wells in Western Canada and as B.C.’s NDP government weighs reforms to the ALR, which was set up in 1973 and has come under pressure from real estate and industrial development.

The increasing number of orphan wells highlights regulatory gaps that put farmland at risk from oil and gas development, said Lenore Newman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley.

As part of a government-appointed advisory committee, Dr. Newman helped write an interim report last year that found the “development of the important and expanding provincial oil and gas resources in the [northeast part of the province] has exceeded the capacity of the current regulatory environment to protect farmland."

“The weakness of the current system is that the OGC has been handed a blank cheque to develop their industry as rapidly as possible,” Dr. Newman said in an e-mail. "They don’t have the knowledge or the manpower in-house to adequately address the long-term impact on farmland,” she added.

In an e-mailed statement, the commission said oil and gas activities take up less than 2 per cent of the ALR in the northeast part of the province and that those activities are subject to review by the Agricultural Land Commission, a tribunal that oversees land use in the ALR.

Mike Bernier, Liberal MLA for Peace River South and the opposition critic for oil and gas development, challenged some of the conclusions in Dr. Newman’s report, maintaining that existing regulatory regime does a good job of protecting agricultural land.

Story continues below advertisement

However, he also supported the NDP’s new legislation to increase funds for managing orphan wells.

“In a perfect scenario we wouldn’t have these – but it is incumbent on government to make sure we have programs in place to encourage companies to not have orphans, but if they do get orphaned, that the OGC has either the penalties or financial means to reclaim that well,” he said.

As outlined in a recent Globe and Mail investigation, the number of inactive, abandoned and orphaned wells in Western Canada that require cleanup and reclamation has ballooned to more than 210,000.

Following the investigation, B.C. and Alberta announced they would impose timelines to clean up idle oil and gas wells.

The Globe’s investigation described how major companies routinely shuffle inactive properties, which come with costly clean-up obligations, to smaller players, raising concerns that clean-up expenses won’t be met.

Wells that aren’t properly plugged and sealed can pose dangers to the environment and to people by, for example, leaking methane or contaminating ground or surface water.

Story continues below advertisement

In B.C., the tally of orphan sites climbed from 38 in 2014 to 326 in November of this year, with the increase due primarily to two companies going into receivership.

Orphan-related costs also jumped, from $5.7-million in fiscal 2018 to a projected $15-million for fiscal 2019.

In response to the rising number of orphan sites, the B.C. government in May passed Bill 15, legislation that brought in a new tax to help clean up orphan sites.

That tax is expected to generate $15-million a year by 2021-22, the OGC says.

The province has about 25,000 oil and gas wells. Of those, under 1.5 per cent are considered orphan sites, according to the OGC.

In a statement, B.C.’s Agriculture Minister Lana Popham referred to new legislation related to orphan wells and said the government would take further steps if required.

Story continues below advertisement

“While less than 2 per cent of the Agricultural Land Reserve in the northeast is occupied by oil and gas activities, our government recognizes the importance of protecting this land for future agricultural use," she said.

The NDP government in November also passed legislation, Bill 52, that brought in new rules that restricted home sizes in the ALR, reinstated a single zone for all land in the reserve (the previous government had brought in a two-zone system) and hiked penalties for illegal dumping.

Editor’s note: An article on Jan. 4 incorrectly said the cost of cleaning up orphan wells – those whose owner have gone bankrupt or can't be found – are borne by the public through government funds. In fact, in British Columbia, companies in the oil and gas industry must pay a levy intended to cover the cost of cleaning up orphan wells.

Orphan wells take root

in protected farmland

About half of B.C.’s orphan oil and gas

wells – sites whose owners have gone

out of business or can’t be found – are in

the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), a

zone set aside for agricultural production.

Alta.

Northern

Rockies

B.C.

Fort

Nelson

ALBERTA

DETAIL

Pacific

Ocean

U.S.

Kitimat-

Stikine

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Fort

St. John

Peace River

Dawson

Creek

Bulkley-

Nechako

97

KEY TO MAP

Fraser-

Fort George

Orphan well

ALR

Regional

District

16

Prince

George

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: ALC.GOV.BC; BC OIL AND GAS COMMISSION

Orphan wells take root

in protected farmland

About half of B.C.’s orphan oil and gas wells –

sites whose owners have gone out of business or

can’t be found – are in the Agricultural Land

Reserve (ALR), a zone set aside for agricultural

production.

Alta.

B.C.

Northern

Rockies

Fort

Nelson

ALBERTA

DETAIL

Pacific

Ocean

U.S.

Kitimat-

Stikine

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Fort

St. John

Peace River

Dawson

Creek

Bulkley-

Nechako

97

KEY TO MAP

Fraser-

Fort George

Orphan well

ALR

Regional

District

16

Prince

George

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: ALC.GOV.BC; BC OIL AND GAS COMMISSION

Orphan wells take root in protected farmland

About half of B.C.’s orphan oil and gas wells – sites whose owners have gone

out of business or can’t be found – are in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR),

a zone set aside for agricultural production.

Alta.

B.C.

Northern

Rockies

Fort

Nelson

ALBERTA

DETAIL

Pacific

Ocean

U.S.

Kitimat-

Stikine

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Fort

St. John

Peace River

Dawson

Creek

Bulkley-

Nechako

97

KEY TO MAP

Fraser-

Fort George

Orphan well

ALR

Regional District

16

Prince

George

Vanderhoof

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: ALC.GOV.BC; BC OIL AND GAS COMMISSION

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter