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An Alberta Environment decision to stop on-site inspections of reclaimed oil and gas sites has some landowners and environmentalists in an uproar.

The decision, effective Oct. 1, means oil and gas companies no longer have to wait for provincial inspectors to visit reclaimed oilfield sites in order to receive reclamation certificates.

The certificates allow companies to turn the land back to the landowner and stop paying annual lease fees.

Environment officials say changes are necessary because of a huge backlog of oilfield sites awaiting reclamation.

They say there are more than 28,000 well sites and 18,400 pipelines awaiting certificates and another 155,000 active wells that will have to be reclaimed in the future.

"We weren't going to be able to keep up with the program with the demand we were anticipating," said department spokeswoman Kim Hunt.

Officials say random field audits, stiffer penalties and an enhanced complaint process will ensure oil and gas companies comply with land reclamation requirements.

The province has also boosted the liability period following site reclamation to 25 years from five to ensure that companies stand behind their work, said Peter Watson, assistant deputy minister of environmental assurance.

"If a problem occurs on that site 10 to 15 years from now, we have the legislated authority to require the company to go back and fix that site," Mr. Watson said.

He said the changes are necessary because the province's 15 inspectors can only certify 2,000 to 2,500 sites a year. The new system may enable them to double or triple that amount, reducing the time farmers have to wait to utilize their land, he added.

The province still plans to audit 15 per cent of the sites, Mr. Watson said. It will inspect some at random, but will pay special attention to those that have known geological problems and sites operated by companies that have had problems in the past.

But critics slammed the move to self-regulation, saying Albertans expect their oil-rich provincial government to take the strongest measures possible to protect the environment.

Hugh Macdonald, energy critic for Alberta's Opposition Liberals, said the Tory government should have learned that self-regulation doesn't work from its failed experiment with workplace safety regulation.

He said the department had a $2.7-million surplus in its land reclamation program last year that could have been used to increase inspections.

Tom Nahirniak, an Alberta farmer who sits on a provincial advisory committee looking at the changes, said the province is ignoring opposition from landowners.

"No landowner in my mind will accept an audit system and say this is good," Mr. Nahirniak said.

Perry Nelson, a member of the Alberta Surface Rights Federation, said he doubts banks will accept reclamation certificates on land that has not been inspected. If they don't, that land can't be used as collateral to borrow money and will be difficult to sell, he said.

David Pryce, vice-president of Western Canadian operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said oil companies approve of the changes, but are lobbying the province to reduce the length of the liability period.