As It Happens

Saskatchewan's laid off oil workers could find jobs cleaning abandoned wells

They were built with wild abandon. And now thousands of oil and gas wells across Western Canada are abandoned. Saskatchewan's Premier has proposed cleaning them up for good, with the help of laid off oil and gas workers. And he has a small-town business owner to thank, who came up with the idea in the first place.
This oil well is being reclaimed by the Orphan Well Association, which is funded by industry to reclaim wells that have been abandoned by companies that simply don't have the cash or assets to pay for reclamation. (Orphan Well Association)

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has proposed using laid off oil and gas workers to clean up orphaned and abandoned well sites.

Matt Cugnet is behind the proposal for using unemployed oil and gas workers and is the President of Valleyview Petroleums in Weyburn, SK.

"The industry abandons a certain number of wells every year. The argument is now is [it's] a very attractive time to do it cost-wise, and if the government can keep people employed rather than paying employment insurance, there is a net value impact to the province," says Cugnet.

Cugnet's program deals with two types of abandoned wells. There are orphan wells, where the ownership is not clear or the owners have gone out of business and surrendered the well back to the province.

Then there are wells that were simply abandoned which is when the owner stops using the site but is still responsible for the clean-up. "With cash flow constrained, there wouldn't be as much activity cleaning up the sites," says Cugnet.

Under the program, high-risk wells that are either abandoned or orphaned would be identified and cleaned up.  When a company walks away from a well, it is capped off, but thousands of metres of tubing remain underground and can still transport remaining oil or gas to the surface. Sometimes if the abandonment process has been done improperly, or if the site is very old, a well can leak.

"Age is a big consideration … some of these wells date from the 40's - 60's," says Cugnet.

Activities covered in the program could include environmental site assessment, removal of old equipment, cleaning up oil and salt water spills, and re-greening the land.

The process can cost over a million dollars or as little as $10,000, depending on the site. Premiere Wall has requested $156 million to clean up 1,000 wells over two years. Wall says he's waiting to hear back from Prime Minister Trudeau about his proposal.

Cugnet says with so many oil and gas workers unemployed right now, there is real value in enacting this program. "This is not about taking a load off industry, it's about getting more people working today."

Cugnet says many companies could start working immediately, "I know our company, we could start in two days."

With files from CBC News

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