Ontario government, industry group want feds to fund abandoned well clean up

An industry group pitching the federal government to fund a remediation program in Ontario requested a meeting to discuss their proposal days before the Wheatley explosion.

Provincial government program to clean up abandoned wells gets up to $3 million a year

Work has started on clearing the scene in Wheatley following an explosion that municipal officials believe was caused by an abandoned natural gas well. (Mike Evans/CBC News)

An industry group representing oil and gas producers, contractors and geologists in Ontario says it has repeatedly asked the federal government to discuss a plan to clean up thousands of abandoned wells in the province that it believes pose a health and safety risk.

The most recent request by the Ontario Petroleum Institute (OPI) to discuss the details of its proposal came days before an explosion in Wheatley, Ont. injured 20 people and destroyed multiple buildings.

Municipal officials said high levels of hydrogen sulphide were detected at the site an hour before the explosion. Chatham-Kent's fire chief Chris Case said that they believe the source of the leak is an abandoned natural gas well. 

In April 2020, the federal government made an announcement of $1.7 billion to clean up orphan wells in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Ontario was not included. 

An abandoned or orphan well is one that was drilled by a company that no longer exists. 

The Ontario Petroleum Institute is asking the federal government for the same aid it gave to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells in other parts of Canada. (CBC News)

What the industry believes clean up will cost

OPI's proposal, first sent to then Minister of Finance Bill Morneau on May 4, 2020, includes:

  • A request for $270-million to reclaim abandoned wells.
  • An estimate that there are 4,4000 abandoned wells in Ontario that pose a potential risk to landowners and public health.
  • Details of an Orphan Well Reclamation program it says will create 500 jobs and support 40 businesses in Ontario.

A spokesperson for OPI said the government confirmed they received the proposals that were sent on May 4, 2020 and Aug. 19, 2021, but did not discuss its proposal. 

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told CBC News on Thursday that she is open to discussing "additional needs that might be [in Ontario]."

Freeland called the remediation a "meaningful challenge" in Ontario while defending the federal government's decision to leave the province out of the program.

The Ontario abandoned works program takes applications to clean up oil and gas wells in cases where the company no longer exists. (CBC News)

"I think its absolutely appropriate and right that the first focus of our orphan wells program was in the energy producing provinces where that is just such a massive part of economic activity," she said. 

WATCH: Freeland's full response to CBC Windsor's questions

Deputy Prime Minister talks about Ontario being left out of national abandoned wells program

1 year ago
Duration 1:33
Chrystia Freeland says the program was needed in provinces where gas and oil sectors are a large part of the economy. She says she is open to speaking with the Ontario government about its abandoned wells needs.

More abandoned wells in Ont. than Sask., B.C. combined

According to Finance Canada, there are about 4,700 orphan wells in Alberta, 600 in Saskatchewan and 350 in British Columbia.

An expert in Ontario's oil and gas wells, Dick Jackson, told CBC News that there are likely 3,000 abandoned wells mostly concentrated in the southwestern part of the province.

The legacy wells in Ontario were the first to be drilled in North America in 1858. Records for two natural gas wells in Wheatley, where the blast occurred, show they were drilled in the late 1800s.

A provincial Abandoned Works program receives $1 million to $3 million annually from the Ontario government, cleaning up 380 wells since 2005 at a cost of $23-million, according to a spokesperson for the ministry of northern development, mines and natural resources and forestry. 

The federal government, when the orphan well funding was announced, said that the cost to clean up one abandoned well could start at $100,000 and go into the millions. 

"The Ontario government supported the local industry association's request to the federal government to be included in the program," said Curtis Lindsay, press secretary for the provincial ministry, about the announced funding in 2020.


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