Keeping Our Land Clean

SECURE Energy Services takes on the important task of reclaiming abandoned wellsites for future generations.

by Jess Sinclair

Western Canada’s oil and gas industry is recognized as one of the world’s most rigorously regulated. Many Canadians are natural conservationists, and the individuals that make up the government and industry bodies that oversee exploration and production activities are no exception. Part of their role is enforcing the laws created to ensure that land used for hydrocarbon production is reclaimed to its former glory.

The issue of orphan wells (having no owner to deal with abandonment and reclamation responsibilities) has received significant press recently as energy companies attempt to weather a severe downturn brought about by lack of market access and low commodity prices. Reclamation regulations were not always so robust, and companies that have been around for many years or acquired others that have been in operation for some time are well aware of their responsibility to remediate sites with ongoing issues.

That’s where companies like SECURE Energy Services, a CAODC Associate Member since 2015, come in. SECURE’s Dr. Erik Martin was kind enough to sit down with members of the Association’s communications team to outline some of the steps that are being taken across Canada (and particularly Western Canada) to address the orphan well issue. An expert in environmental risk assessment and toxicology, Martin is also experienced in all facets of contaminated site management and has worked in multiple provinces including Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.

There are over 50,000 inactive, suspended or abandoned wellsites in Alberta and 10,000 in British Columbia. An abandoned well is defined by the Alberta Energy Regulator as a site that is no longer needed for oil and gas development and has been permanently dismantled, plugged and capped and left in a safe and secure condition. Activities at an inactive well have been stopped for technical or economic reasons. Suspended wells are no longer producing but have not yet been capped and are also monitored by provincial regulatory bodies.

In each of these provinces, and across Canada, environmental risk assessment (ERA) is a specialized tool that can be used to manage contaminated sites and ultimately obtain regulatory closure. The process takes several initial issues into consideration, including the relative age of the site; its potential effects upon human, animal and plant receptors in the area; and potential pathways for exposure to contamination. “In the case of older wellsites, we are sometimes dealing with 70 plus years of paperwork across multiple companies,” says Martin. “Sometimes we have too much information, sometimes far too little. The level of detail varies by company and, especially, by how long a site has been around.”

Some observers outside of the industry are unaware that we operate on a “polluter pays” basis. Companies understand that, by law, it is their obligation and theirs alone to bring a site back to its original state, whether the local environment exists in a state of nature or is being used for agricultural purposes. These sites also exist in urban or residential areas, a factor that Martin says his team takes into consideration in its approach to the ERA process.

The basic application of ERA has three possible outcomes:
1. No risk, meaning no further work is required.
2. Some risk with a requirement for ongoing monitoring.
3. Risk with a requirement for remediation.

The ERA process initially involves environmental site assessment (ESA) works. A Phase I ESA is completed to determine whether contaminated areas are potentially present within an abandoned wellsite. If the site “fails” this initial assessment, specialists are employed to go out to the site and complete a Phase II ESA wherein environmental samples (soil, groundwater, surface water, sediment) are collected with the objective of developing a conceptual site model. At that point, decisions will be made about the best way to remediate the site. This commonly involves leaving the contamination in place to decrease over time (natural attenuation) or transporting contaminated material to a landfill facility. Martin says that the first approach is often an underrated one. “Landfills are generally low-oxygen environments,” he explains. “It can take longer for chemicals to break down when they are stored in this manner as opposed to leaving contamination at a site.”

“The [exploration and production] companies we deal with are remarkably cooperative,” says Martin. “They want these liabilities off of their books.” To that end, the goal of any reclamation effort is to bring the environmental liability of a site to zero and secure a Reclamation Certificate (in Alberta) or a Certificate of Restoration (in B.C.).

ERA is founded in sound science but at times it can also be an art. The successful completion of the process relies upon the instincts and creativity of the environmental scientists involved, as well as their formal training. Scientists need to be able to see beyond the early stages of the process before it begins in order to ensure that ERA is a suitable tool for an impacted site. Done properly, the process can represent significant cost-savings for obtaining site closure, as well as speeding up and improving the efficacy of remediation efforts.

From exploration and production companies to environmental scientists to the regulators who sign off on reclamation certificates, all share a common goal: rehabilitating our abandoned wellsites for use by future generations – human, animal and plant.