Albertans began prospecting for “black gold” more than a century ago. Years and years of drilling for oil and natural gas has resulted in more than just wealth for the province—it’s resulted in hundreds of thousands of wells dotting the landscape in various states of disrepair.
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) requires companies—also referred to as “licensees”—to make sure that wells pose no threat to public safety or the environment. This goes for wells that are categorized as inactive, suspended, abandoned, reclaimed, and orphaned.
The AER also ensures that Albertans are protected from the cost of abandoning and reclaiming upstream oil and gas wells, facilities, pipelines, and their associated sites.
While wells may differ slightly depending on the type or location, the graphic below demonstrates how wells in different phases of the energy life cycle may look.
An inactive well is one that hasn’t produced oil or gas, hasn’t injected fluids, and hasn’t disposed of waste for 6 or 12 months, depending on how the well is classified for risk. An inactive well must be suspended in accordance with the AER’s Directive 013: Suspension Requirements for Wells
Suspended wells also aren’t producing oil or gas, aren’t injecting fluids, and aren’t disposing of waste. However, these wells have been suspended to meet the public safety and environmental protection rules in Directive 013. Wells can remain suspended until a company determines that the well is no longer needed for energy development and can be abandoned.
Wells are abandoned when they are no longer needed for energy development. Directive 020: Well Abandonment
details strict rules that ensure that the well is in a safe and secure state. Although they don’t pose a significant risk to the environment or public, leaks are possible. If a leak happens, the company, which is responsible for repairing it, must notify the AER immediately.
Once an energy project has been properly closed and abandoned, a company may begin remediating and reclaiming the site. Companies must return the disturbed land to a state comparable to the state it was in before development; they will always remain responsible for any infrastructure left beneath the surface.
Companies must clearly demonstrate that all site issues—for instance, ensuring that any contaminated soil meets Alberta Environment and Parks remediation criteria
—have been addressed. The AER audits a varying number of sites each year based on different risk factors. The AER will also respond to all complaints about site reclamation.
Orphan wells can be in any state: inactive, suspended, abandoned, or even producing. A well is considered orphaned when a licensee becomes defunct without having properly abandoned the well and reclaimed the well site. If this happens, the AER orders anyone who benefits from or has a legal interest in the well to abandon and reclaim it. If there is no responsible party, the AER deems the well and associated sites to be orphaned. The Orphan Well Association then takes over the care and custody of the infrastructure and sites.