Artist devises satirical scheme to 'adopt' Alberta's orphaned wells

Alana Bartol is hoping to find caregivers for hundreds of Alberta orphans, but these charges are not children. They are oil wells across the province abandoned by their owners.

'There is no home visit. Actually, you are not allowed to visit your oil well'

A new art exhibit seeks to find new symbolic caretakers for Alberta's orphaned oil wells. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Alana Bartol is hoping to find caregivers for hundreds of Alberta orphans, but these charges are not children. They are oil wells across the province abandoned by their owners.

The Calgary-based artist started a fictional non-profit group called the Orphan Well Adoption Agency and will be hosting adoption events at Edmonton's Latitude 53 gallery every Saturday this month.   

Bartol's art exhibit is a satirical attempt to find new "owners" for the wells.

Attendees will be greeted by an agent and some paperwork. 

"They can meet with one of our representatives and they will take them through the adoption interview process," Bartol said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"There is no home visit. Actually, you are not allowed to visit your oil well. You have to sign a waiver if you're approved."

Adopted wells may act out during the early days of adoption causing spills or leaks.-Orphan Well Adoption Agency

Potential adoptees must answer a questionnaire, with questions relating to their connection to the oil and gas industry and their past experience as a caretaker.

"Adopted wells may act out during the early days of adoption causing spills or leaks from deterioration or lack of proper upkeep," warns the questionnaire. 

"Many of our wells have experienced distress from lack of care and attention. If a behavioural problem arises, what steps would you take to address it?"

Approved caretakers will receive an adoption certificate and the location of a real abandoned well which has been ascribed a new nickname.

Adoptees will also be given the option of receiving written correspondence from their oil well. 

The letters are often melancholic, Bartol said. "The letters all different. Some of them are quite depressed or upset.

"Some are angry; some are very confused about their situation."

'The orphanage is growing'

The exhibit also features illustrated portraits, videos and photographs of orphan wells and detailed, hand-drawn maps of the roads which service them.

Bartol has also created a seemingly-legitimate website for the Orphan Well Adoption Agency featuring personalized well profiles and online application forms.

"As the oil and gas industry enters rocky times, the orphanage is growing," reads the website.
Alana Bartol says the exhibit is meant to raise awareness about the increasing number of orphaned wells in Alberta. (Lukas Wall/CBC)

Bartol hopes the exhibit raises awareness and allow people to have a different kind of debate about a serious environmental issue.

"We're interested in exploring people's connections to oil and gas and also thinking about our relationships to consumption and natural resources," said Bartol, who teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design.

"I hope that through this process it allows people to empathize with these sites." 

As of March 2017, the province's Orphan Well Association had an inventory of 2,084 orphaned wells.

The wells can contaminate water and soil, leak greenhouse gases and put nearby homes at risk of explosions and harmful gases.

Since moving from Ontario to Alberta, Bartol said she has become increasingly passionate about issues of industrial reclamation —and orphan wells were a natural muse.

"By personifying them, I hope it will allow people to think about this issue in a completely different way."

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca