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Arnold Janz is profoundly disappointed.
He loved his job with the Alberta government — loved going out with a shovel to old oil and gas sites; loved looking for evidence of spills; loved talking to farmers and landowners about their concerns; loved feeling like he could contribute to improving the province’s landscapes.
At least, he loved it at first.
But then things took a turn. As the Alberta government — and the provincial energy regulator — has moved away from inspecting oil and gas well sites when they apply for official certification that a site is cleaned up, he’s concerned Alberta’s reclamation program has given way to industry pressure, leading to countless sites that will never return to anything akin to the state they were in before oil and gas development arrived.
Beyond that, he’s worried about what he describes as a government unreceptive — bordering on hostile — to his concerns.
Reclamation is no small business in Alberta. With the federal government’s infusion of $1 billion in 2020 to turbocharge the cleanup of the province’s 174,000 inactive and decommissioned well sites, the reclamation industry has seen something of a boom.
But there are few assurances that funding will ensure the long-term ecological recovery of old well sites, even after they’ve been deemed officially reclaimed. Data provided to The Narwhal shows the vast majority of sites — around 95 per cent — that have been deemed reclaimed, through the issuance of what’s known as a reclamation certificate, have never been visited by government or regulator staff.
With so many reclamation certificates issued without audits, scientists like Janz have been studying whether the process lives up to its long-term goals.
Janz was the researcher behind a government-led effort to track whether former oil and gas sites recovered in the long run. He says he tried to make his managers aware of the implications of his findings — which he found deeply concerning — to no avail.
“I would be constantly at them, email after email, saying ‘you’ve got to do something,’ ” he says of the years leading up to his retirement. “I had to warn people within the government. This was my last chance to warn people.”
But in the end, he says, his research was stone-walled, his recommendations ignored and his pleas for the attention of managers resulted in him being told his concerned emails must come to a “full stop.” Shortly after he retired, Janz requested a meeting with Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon. He never heard back. (A spokesperson for the minister’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Janz isn’t alone in his concerns. Bill Donahue, former head of monitoring and science at Alberta Environment and Parks, who was familiar with Janz’s work during his tenure, describes reclamation in Alberta as a “failure.”
“Looking at Arnold and his colleagues’ studies, where there have been efforts to assess whether or not reclamation processes, standards and regulations work or not, the answer is always, ‘no, they fail, they fail to meet the goals and desired outcomes, which are established in law,’ ” he told The Narwhal.
Janz made every effort to ring alarm bells about his findings within the government, Donahue added, but the response was “crickets.” Routinely within Alberta Environment and Parks, he said, “there’s not even an acknowledgement of the problem, let alone an effort to fix it.”
This isn’t something Janz takes lightly, and the experience leaves him with much lingering regret.
“I feel as if I’ve wasted three decades of public funding,” he says with visible emotion from his kitchen table near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. He dedicated much of his career to trying to develop a systematic and scientific approach that would ensure old oil and gas sites would be cleaned up.
Now, he says, he fears those efforts were a failure.
“Some days I feel awful,” he says. “What have I done for the public and for future generations, my kids and my grandkids?”
It all began with a small job posting in the Calgary Herald back in 1987. The Government of Alberta was looking for a soil scientist. Janz was a graduate from the University of Alberta who had studied soils and agriculture, and had spent a few years farming irrigated crops like sugar beets in southern Alberta with his father.
That ad in the Calgary Herald would lead Janz to a 33-year career in soil science with the Alberta government.
But looking back over his career now, Janz has one central concern: that his decades of work have not ultimately served the Alberta public.
“There’s such a huge pressure on the government from the industry that the government is just going to ignore this stuff,” he says.
Janz had spear-headed a three-year pilot project, called the ecological recovery monitoring project, which examined how old well sites fared in the long term, after they were issued reclamation certificates.
The pilot project examined 73 certified well sites in grassland, forested and cultivated areas between 2013 and 2015, and concluded less than 50 per cent met the conservation and land capability objectives set out in legislation.
Anne McIntosh, an ecologist and associate professor of biology at the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta, was an external collaborator on the ecological recovery monitoring project. Janz and McIntosh worked together from the early days of the project, when, as she remembers, her team was still working out the logistics of data collection in farmers’ fields. “I thought you could leave your measuring tapes out overnight,” she said, laughing, recalling how cattle would disturb their plots.
“Arnold has so much wisdom in terms of his life experience,” she told The Narwhal. “I’ve always appreciated how passionate he is about conservation and land reclamation. He truly cares — he’s not just showing up and doing it for the pay cheque.”
When she first started working on reclamation-related issues in 2012, she said, she was shocked at the lack of data on long-term health of reclaimed well sites. “When I started on this project, I was like, ‘what, nobody ever goes back? What do you mean, nobody ever goes back? Because, hello,’ ” she recalled. “It’s one thing to think ‘well, I hope it’s going back to being what it was.’ But I’m all about ‘show me the data.’ ”
The ecological recovery monitoring project was an attempt to gather that data — and monitoring old well sites takes patience. “It doesn’t have that wow factor,” McIntosh said of monitoring over many years or even decades, noting that it is “absolutely important” to see if old well sites are living up to promises when it comes to equivalent land capability. And that takes time: when a well pad is certified reclaimed in a forest, for example, the replanted trees will just be saplings. Without monitoring and checking back years in the future, scientists have no way of knowing the state of the landscape post-development.
For Janz, his years of work collecting data on the long-term recovery of oil and gas well sites made one thing perfectly clear: “The damage is permanent.”
“I don’t think the public understands,” he says. “How could they? They don’t know this stuff. They don’t know the impacts, the legacy damage.”
His research was provided to the Alberta Energy Regulator — which oversees reclamation certificates in Alberta — but it didn’t go far. “The [regulator] is aware of the work completed by Mr. Janz, and at this time, there are no plans to incorporate his findings,” a spokesperson told The Narwhal by email.
One of Janz’s ongoing recommendations to his managers in the government was that there should be a continuing long-term project to continue on with the study of how certified reclaimed oil and gas sites fared in the long run — a way he thought, perhaps the only way, of the government ensuring its reclamation program was actually working.
Instead, the funding for the pilot project was reduced to zero in 2017. The Alberta government now has no program looking at how reclaimed oil and gas sites fare in the years and decades after they are left behind by oil and gas companies. Alberta Environment and Parks did not respond to repeated requests for an interview or to detailed questions sent by email from The Narwhal.
“There’s enough evidence now to show that the system has to change,” Janz says.
Instead, he watched as the system stopped scientific monitoring of reclaimed sites altogether, leaving his existing findings sitting on a shelf.
There are nearly half a million oil and gas well sites in Alberta, covering an estimated 400,000 hectares — an area approximately five times the size of Calgary.
Oil and gas companies have long made a promise to Albertans: that the wells they’ve drilled across the province would one day be cleaned up. Drillers and well operators operated on the condition that land would be returned to just as good as it was before they arrived, sometimes even making the claim that the condition of the land would be “better.”
Of course, the standards that held companies to account to those promises have evolved since the first well was drilled in the province in 1902, at a time when the fledgling industry and its limited activity had relatively little impact and reclamation was not a significant concern.
It took until the 1960s for reclamation to gain much traction in the industry.
By 1977, reclamation guidelines were requiring well sites to be left in “comparable” condition — whether that be agricultural productivity or “density, growth and vigor of vegetation” — to before industrial activity, adding that sites should also be “aesthetically acceptable” once reclamation was complete, though interpretation of those ideas has been described as subjective at best.
Today, Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the legislation governing how companies must act to protect the environment, requires oil and gas companies fulfill “the objective of protecting the essential physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the environment against degradation.” Once a company is finished with a site, they are obligated by regulations to return it to what’s known as “equivalent land capability,” or as the Alberta government puts it, “a reclaimed site should support the same uses as it did before it was disturbed.”
This is ensured through the issuing of what’s known as a reclamation certificate.
The idea of a reclamation certificate was first introduced in the 1960s. Since then, nearly 100,000 wellsites across the province have received reclamation certificates — or are exempt from reclamation based on their age.
The issuing of reclamation certificates changed over time. For years, there was what’s been dubbed a “common sense approach” to deciding what constituted reclamation, relying largely on subjective judgments by inspectors. It wasn’t until the 1990s that detailed reclamation criteria were first developed — a more science and data-based approach.
For many years, reclamation certificates were only issued after a government inspector had gone out to a wellsite to review the application, collect data and interview landowners. That came to an end in 2003, when on-site visits were replaced with an office-based technical review of data provided by a company-hired contractor, in combination with audits.
The Alberta government at the time pointed to a backlog of pending reclamation certificates: a spokesperson told The Globe and Mail in 2003 that nearly 30,000 wells and 18,000 pipelines awaited inspection, and only 15 government inspectors were on staff.
The spokesperson lauded the move away from site inspections, noting it could double, or even triple, the number of certificates issued annually. At the time, Alberta’s 15 government inspectors could only certify 2,000 to 2,500 sites a year. The public was assured that audits would be conducted on 15 per cent of sites to keep an eye on what was going on the ground.
Today, the Alberta Energy Regulator, which is funded entirely by industry, issues reclamation certificates. Since 2018, the regulator has issued an average of nearly 2,500 reclamation certificates annually, according to data it provided to The Narwhal.
For the vast majority of reclamation certificates, no inspection by the regulator is completed — just the required paperwork, signed off on by a professional consultant hired by an oil or gas company. Most applications are approved by the regulator automatically. Data provided to The Narwhal shows more than 80 per cent of reclamation certificates were approved automatically between 2018 and 2021, with no review at all from Alberta Energy Regulator staff.
Fewer sites still are ever visited by staff from the Alberta Energy Regulator. Data provided to The Narwhal shows that since 2018, just under four per cent of reclamation certificates underwent what’s known as a “surface audit,” while 0.2 per cent of reclamation certificates underwent a “subsurface audit,” which would involve collecting soil samples for analysis.
Over the last four years — when nearly 10,000 reclamation certificates were issued — just 23 subsurface audits were conducted.
While the regulator acknowledged in an email response to The Narwhal’s questions that, “Alberta Environment and Parks set a target to complete audits on 15 per cent of reclamation certified well sites,” it contends that target “was not specific to on-site visits,” and instead dubs a “desktop review” to be an audit. In addition, a spokesperson said by email, “the regulator does not base our audit program on the Alberta Environment target.”
The regulator maintains that its audit program is sufficient, with a spokesperson writing, “the [regulator] completes surface audits on reclamation-certified well sites to evaluate if the location meets equivalent land capability.” The spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether there’s any monitoring of how oil and gas sites fare in the long run.
The regulator also contends that problems can still be fixed after a certificate is issued, with a spokesperson noting that “landowners have 25 years to bring forward any concerns regarding reclamation of the former wellsite, and if any concerns are identified during that time frame, the [regulator] will investigate.” Over 60 per cent of Alberta’s land base, however, is on public land, which may leave many sites without a clear watchdog, though the regulator said in an email, “anyone that holds an interest in the land, such as land use officers, trappers or grazing lease holders, can bring forward complaints on public land.”
This system still raises red flags for scientists like Janz and Donahue. Without long-term data on whether sites are recovering, they ask, how can the government ensure the quality of the reclamation program?
“The question in my mind was what happens when we certify these sites? When we walk away? Everyone assumed the soil would recover and the crops would recover,” Janz says. “There was always a great deal of pressure from the oil and gas industry, saying ‘it’s going to be okay.’ ”
“On what basis are you saying it’s going to be okay?”
“There is no systematic routine monitoring or scientific study that is done to ensure that reclamation, standards, regulation, policies or laws are actually working,” Donahue, the former head of monitoring at Alberta Environment and Parks, said. “There are no checks and balances at all.”
“It would be like the Canada Revenue Agency simply requiring people to submit their tax returns — and when they get them, they check the box and say ‘done,’ with no auditing or anything.”
At his kitchen table, Janz gets up to conduct a science demonstration of sorts. After years of experience going out in the field, he learned to have an eagle eye for possible soil contamination.
He disappears, the shuffle of his slippers the only sound in his quiet living room, into another room to fetch two soil samples, which he brings to the table in cardboard bowls. Using a syringe, he adds a few drops of water to each.
One sample, he explains, is from undisturbed soil — a sample taken from a site that has never hosted any oil and gas infrastructure. The other is from a site where oil and gas activity took place.
In one, the water is absorbed immediately by the soil. It’s now essentially mud. In the other, the water forms a tiny orb on the surface; the soil is completely resistant to the moisture, like it has landed on a raincoat.
The latter, he says, comes from a site that had seen an oil spill decades earlier.
These were the kinds of tell-tale signs Janz would look for when he went out into the field to assess the cleanup of old oil and gas wells.
For him, the difference between the two soil samples is obvious. To a layperson, they both just look like dirt. “There’s a whole underground world there that very few people understand,” he says.
Janz has spent decades as a scientist dedicated to data and is fastidious about not making false claims. But he’s also motivated by a clear moral purpose: he frequently cites his “duty to serve the public.” As he talks, he regularly brings up integrity and accountability, both virtues he says he felt pressured to suppress during his time working for the government.
He kept diaries throughout his career — notes on where he went, who he talked to and how his research was going.
The collection of notebooks goes back years, and for a long time sat undisturbed on a shelf in his home. Now that he’s retired, Janz has been revisiting his diaries. Seeing his recollections laid out in front of him gave him something of a shock. It was, he tells The Narwhal, worse than he thought.
His diaries, he now says, are a catalog of many years of his memories of subtle — and not so subtle — pushes to dissuade him from pushing too hard to hold industry accountable. He says he remembers instances in which at least 10 different managers pressured or intimidated him as a result of the concerns he had about his work.
There are records of conversations lost to history, some memories even he had long ago forgotten. There was the time he found a methane gas leak at a certified well site. He wrote down the response from the regional office of the Alberta government he reported it to — “Are you on a witch hunt?”
Then there was the time he could clearly smell hydrocarbons at a site he visited, where he also saw evidence of soil contamination. Janz wrote about this in his diary too: the company representative and consultant laughed, he noted, and told him he was “seeing ghosts.” (The Narwhal could not independently verify Janz’s recollections and Alberta Environment and Parks did not respond to questions about the alleged incidents.)
On that site, as Janz recalls, he did find an oil spill. He estimates the company had to spend millions to clean it up. But it wasn’t an anomaly. “I think there are still many sites out there today that are totally getting missed,” he says.
“I was becoming quite an irritant to oil companies,” Janz says. “I’m sure that the minister was getting calls about me. I noticed they wouldn’t let me out in the field anymore.” (The minister’s office did not respond to emailed questions from The Narwhal.)
At other times, he wrote in his diaries about being asked by managers to “soften” his conclusions for a presentation at a conference, or about being given advice when speaking to journalists to “stay in the lane” and “use the three most powerful words in the English language: ‘I don’t know.’ ” Janz now says he “interpreted this advice as: hide the truth and lie if necessary to protect the department,” — something he was unwilling to do.
Ultimately, the debate over whether oil and gas well sites are sufficiently reclaimed revolves around the legislated notion of “equivalent land capability.” One person’s expectation of equivalence may not be the same as the next person’s — does a site need to be exactly as pristine as an untouched site?
As it stands, an old well pad is considered reclaimed — and therefore meeting equivalent land capability standards — once it receives a reclamation certificate, even if that reclamation certificate was likely never reviewed by regulators or government staff.
It’s what happens to the land in the years and decades after the reclamation certificate that still leaves scientists like Janz and Donahue concerned. They’re concerned about whether sufficient resources have been dedicated to the scientific study of an industry that affects a land area in Alberta more than four times the size of Jasper National Park.
Donahue ultimately left his post at the Alberta government amid concerns about the department’s direction. “Scientists are viewed with suspicion, skepticism and outright hostility,” at Alberta Environment and Parks, he said. “They ask inconvenient questions.”
Before he retired in early 2021, Janz wrote an in-depth — and scathing — report cataloging the years of research, much of it peer-reviewed, he had worked on during his time in government. He included countless recommendations. No one, he says, was interested in his findings and conclusions. The report fizzled on his desk.
“The [land reclamation] program does not ensure the environmental outcomes … that it was instituted to ensure,” he wrote in the report, noting the program “does not scientifically plan, measure, monitor, report, validate or assure land quality conservation” of oil and gas well sites that have been certified as reclaimed.
Reclamation in Alberta, he added, encourages methods that are “inconsistent” and “unscientific.” He concluded the program “lacks transparency and accountability,” “has failed to address known flaws over several decades” and ultimately “fails to protect the interests of Albertans on private and public lands.”
It’s clear Janz has been emotionally affected by his time in government, and particularly by the period leading up to his departure.
Now entering his second year of retirement, Janz keeps himself busy — daily walks even in the bitter Alberta cold, birdwatching at the feeders outside his living room window and waiting for updates on his newest grandchild. But he can’t put aside his concerns about his legacy at the Alberta government, or the way he felt his work was sidelined in the face of industry pressure.
It’s something Donahue can empathize with. “It’s what every environmental scientist faces today: a degree of PTSD and depression,” Donahue said. “You work on major problems that pose substantial risks ecologically, and ultimately to people, and the public just ignores it.”
But though Janz is frustrated, he hasn’t lost all hope. “I’m hoping to expose some of the things that are going on,” he says. “This land belongs to Albertans [and] future generations. It’s just wrong what’s being done today.”
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