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“Every single wellsite failed.”
That’s what Keith Wilson, a lawyer who has worked on surface rights issues for 30 years, says he heard at a presentation by the Alberta government earlier this year.
Wilson was listening to a representative from Alberta Environment and Parks give a lecture entitled “An analysis of Alberta’s Conservation and Reclamation program — does the program work as intended?”
The answer, in short, was no.
Daryl Bennett, a director at a group called Action Surface Rights, was there too. What he heard about the ecological condition of former wellsites — which had been officially certified as reclaimed — was alarming.
The government’s own research studied wellsites where reclamation certificates had been issued — and found they were nowhere near back to normal.
Nor were they meeting the government’s own regulations about the condition of the land.
There are currently no legislated timelines requiring when an oil and gas company reclaims a wellsite. Last month, Alberta’s Minister of Energy said she is “looking at targets and timelines,” for when reclamation is cleaned up, but did not herself commit to a timeline to implement any new rules.
In the meantime, companies are faced with the same trade-off they’ve had for years — continue to pay annual rent to the landowner where the well is located, or pay to clean up the site.
But as the government study found, the ecological and agricultural effects of industrial activity may linger — seemingly indefinitely — even if a company chooses the latter.
This has left some to wonder if the regulator has been allowing industry to get away with sub-par reclamation efforts — for decades.
The Alberta Energy Regulator issues reclamation certificates to companies that apply for them. For the vast majority, no inspection by the regulator is necessary — just the required paperwork, signed off on by a certified practitioner. Most applications are approved by the regulator automatically.
Alberta has accumulated more than 100,000 wellsites that have received reclamation certificates — or that are exempt from reclamation based on their age — during the past 50 years. The liability for these sites eventually reverts back to the taxpayer.
And this doesn’t include the massive backlog of inactive wells in Alberta. Officials within the regulator tasked with ensuring oil and gas wellsites are cleaned up have privately pegged the bill at as high as $100 billion.
The presentation Wilson and Bennett saw was about a pilot project, conducted by Alberta Environment and Parks. It looked at 73 wellsites from across Alberta, representing forested, cultivated and grassland landscapes, that had been issued reclamation certificates.
Some sites had been certified as reclaimed as many as 54 years ago, others as recently as 2011.
The presentation warned that if reclamation hasn’t truly restored the landscape, the province could potentially face an even larger bill in the future. “Certified site liabilities will begin to transition from industry to public,” it concluded, adding, “public interest is not served as intended.”
The research examined whether the sites studied had met the regulated objective of returning a wellsite to “equivalent land capability” to ensure that the ecological, agricultural or other productive capacity of the land is restored.
In test after test, the sites were found to be in worse condition than nearby undisturbed areas assessed for the sake of comparison — even the sites that hadn’t seen any industrial activity for decades.
But when The Narwhal asked the Alberta Institute of Agrologists for permission to view video of the presentation, the Institute declined, adding, “the topic ended up being a bit of a contentious issue.”
“There was unwanted negativity towards [the] findings.”
Mike Smith, a retired reclamation inspector, knows about that kind of unwanted negativity.
The Narwhal met with Smith and his wife, at their home in Wainwright, to talk about his storied career.
Smith retired five years ago, after working for the Alberta government for over 36 years — in Hanna, Grande Prairie and Wainwright.
When a company applied for a reclamation certificate, Smith would head out into the field to see if the reclamation was up to snuff, and to see if the site was worthy of being certified.
“When I first started with them in 1976, they didn’t even issue us shovels,” he told The Narwhal. “We used the toe of our boot.”
At that time, he said, he was tasked primarily with ensuring a company had cleaned up the debris leftover from drilling — metal casings from the well, caps, cables, random debris — and that they had leveled off the ground so farmers could plant new crops.
“We’d go out with the landowner and see if it was smooth enough for him to farm,” he explains. A second local inspector would accompany him, representing the county or municipal district.
It was a job Smith took seriously.
“I would have to look at it through my own eyes.” He’d ask himself, “if I owned this land, would it meet my standards?”
Smith loved his job, he told The Narwhal. “It felt like I was doing something worthwhile.”
But reclamation inspections have changed dramatically. At first, Smith thought things were improving — he was issued a shovel, for starters — and it seemed like reclamation was being taken seriously.
“There was lots that was happening that was good,” he said, “until Ralph Klein.”
Since the 1990s, according to Smith, Alberta’s reclamation program has been in a “gradual downward spiral.”
By 2003, Smith’s job changed dramatically. He would no longer go out to inspect a site before a reclamation certificate was issued.
Instead, the majority were expected to be done from his desk. He was tasked with auditing approximately 15 per cent of the applications.
“You didn’t see the soil anymore. You didn’t get to feel it, you didn’t get to look at it,” he told The Narwhal. “You were scrolling.”
“We weren’t happy, let’s put it that way,” he said, when asked about the morale of inspectors at the time.
When Smith did get to out to a site, he might find gas leaks or evidence of soil compaction — or that crops and other vegetation weren’t growing properly.
“That’s still lasting,” he said. “Those problems are still there.”
“Many of the applications that I audited failed,” he told The Narwhal. Still, he said, failing sites was often not encouraged by his employer.
“It was tremendous — the pressure you received,” he said, of feeling compelled to issue sites a passing grade. He wasn’t, as he put it, a “fan favourite,” among oil and gas companies seeking certificates.
At one point, he said, a company that owned a wellsite that he had failed complained to his director. He remembers one of his bosses telling him, “Mike, work with these people.”
For Smith, the message was clear: “Get these things through.”
Smith was not alone in the people The Narwhal spoke to who expressed similar concerns.
“The oil company has an agenda,” he said. “They want to get a reclamation certificate.” Once a reclamation certificate is issued, oil and gas companies no longer have to pay rent to the landowner where the well was located — and the liability is off their books.
“This has been a problem for me for many years.”
In 2013, all inspection and enforcement was taken over by a newly created arms-length corporation — the Alberta Energy Regulator — and Smith had had enough. “I submitted my request to retire. I could see what was happening… I couldn’t put myself in that position, where I would be beholden to industry.”
“We have some of the best legislation on the environment,” he laments, acknowledging that reclamation criteria have improved over time. “But we don’t have the enforcement.”
Until 2003, reclamation certificates were only issued after a government inspector like Smith had gone out to a wellsite to review the application, collect data and interview landowners.
But by 2003, the government had accumulated a large backlog of pending approvals. And with only 15 government inspectors at the time, they decided the most efficient way to speed up the process was to rely, essentially, on industry self-regulation.
With a backlog of close to 30,000 wells that had applied for reclamation certificates — and another 18,000 pipelines — the government was bogged down. “We weren’t going to be able to keep up with the program with the demand we were anticipating,” a spokesperson told the Globe and Mail at the time.
Getting rid of government inspectors, a spokesperson said, would more than double the number of certificates that could be issued annually. In its place would be steeper fines, random audits and an increased liability period.
Five years later, the regulator began requiring “professional sign off,” by a contractor hired by companies, in order for an application to be submitted.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Alberta Energy Regulator — funded by industry and whose board was, until recently, helmed by chairperson Gerard Protti, formerly a founding president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) — is still trying to speed up the process.
The regulator is responsible for reviewing tens of thousands of energy development proposals annually, conducting inspections to ensure industry is compliant with government standards, administering penalties for non-compliance and conducting hearings on proposals. In short, the corporation “oversee[s] all aspects of energy resource activities” — no small feat.
The regulator has introduced new procedures to speed things up.
Today, it requires only that companies submit the required paperwork using an online system called the “OneStop Reclamation Certificate and Onestop Application tool.”
Eighty percent of applications proceed with a standard, “automated review” of the application — no human regulator needed, and certainly no field visit.
A video released by the regulator last year lauded the “administratively friendly” automated online platform that would mean “low-risk applications processed in minutes.”
“Not kidding,” the video added.
The video advertised $7 million in annual savings and advertised that it would enable “25,000 pipeline applications processed annually — automatically.”
The video celebrated how easy it would be for industry to apply for reclamation certificates.
“Hello easy drop-down menus,” it boasted.
The regulator, which declined The Narwhal’s request for a phone interview, defends its move to increased efficiency. “For Alberta to be competitive, we need to enable further development by removing unnecessary costs in our regulatory system, while still maintaining high standards for environmental protection and public safety,” Samantha Peck, a spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator, said in an e-mail.
“To improve efficiency, the [regulator] is focused on improving application turnaround timelines, ensuring modern, effective requirements, and continuing to transform how we operate in order to keep up with market and technology changes that affect industry,” she added. (After two weeks of back and forth, this was the only question the regulator was able to answer by press time.)
It’s long been clear that the regulator takes much of its direction from industry.
“The private sector is placing increasing pressure on regulatory bodies to… simplify cumbersome regulatory processes,” the regulator’s former head told the industry magazine Daily Oil Bulletin last November.
Oil and gas companies, he continued, “are asking us to be innovative in our regulations.”
The regulator may well have heeded industry’s requests for simplifying cumbersome regulatory processes, but the pilot project from Alberta Environment and Parks — which has not committed to conducting any further field research — appears to be ringing alarm bells about the reclamation process.
This pilot project is one of the first of its kind to actually attempt to establish whether reclamation has been successful in returning sites to “equivalent land capability.”
Anne McIntosh, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Alberta, worked on the pilot project. “What do we already know? Very little,” she told The Narwhal. “Surprisingly little research has been done on reclamation.”
“I was just shocked when I started on this project.”
The project sought to establish the “ecological recovery” of a site, using various methodologies to determine if reclamation had brought the area back to the original, pre-drilling condition of soils and vegetation — as is required by legislation.
Researchers took samples from old wellsites — looking at soil condition, crops, plant life, noxious weeds and tiny microorganisms — then took the same samples not far away, to establish a baseline. The research involved “goes beyond what’s done as part of the reclamation assessment process,” according to the project’s director.
They then calculated what’s known as an ecological recovery score — assuming the higher the score, the closer it might be to actually achieving the legislated requirement of “equivalent land capability.”
The results are startling.
The project found that over two thirds of the sites — all of them certified as reclaimed— in forested and grassland areas had recovery scores of less than 50 per cent.
In forested areas, for example, 90 per cent of wellsites studied had recovery scores of less than 50 per cent when it came to soil, meaning the soil was substantially more compact, had a higher pH and was generally in worse condition than adjacent reference sites.
And when researchers looked at soil mesofauna in agricultural areas — the tiny invertebrates like mites and nematodes often used as indicators of soil health — they found much lower concentrations at reclaimed wellsites.
On croplands, some wellsites were found to be “unsuitable” for crop production — despite being officially reclaimed.
Drone images presented at the conference showed examples where former wellsites could clearly be seen from above, their exact outline visible through the degradation of crops that have been planted on top of them — though they were certified as reclaimed more than twenty years ago.
The implications of the government’s findings could be far-reaching.
If the pilot project’s preliminary results are indicative of what’s going on in the rest of the province — and researchers are careful to note that they can’t make assumptions about the bigger picture — the true costs of reclamation could continue to increase well into the future.
When asked for details, Alberta Environment and Parks’ Environmental Monitoring and Science Division initially responded by e-mail, noting that “although reclamation activities are intended to re-establish the capability of the land, important elements like plant and bird communities, soil properties, and nutrient cycling may not be fully established for years or even decades.”
Alberta Environment and Parks declined to make the scientist who gave the government presentation available for an interview with The Narwhal, saying “we are not able to get you in touch.”*
In a later interview with Dan Farr, Alberta Environment and Parks’ Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Sciences — who oversees the pilot project — told The Narwhal he’s “not surprised” that wellsites differ from reference sites, and declined to comment on the implications of the project for the reclamation certificate process.
When asked if the preliminary results of the research suggested reclamation certificates were not ensuring equivalent land capability — as is the requirement — he paused.
“Equivalent land capability,” he noted, “is more qualitative than quantitative.”
“If we consider equivalence to [mean] equal ecologically,” he said carefully, “then the answer is clearly no.”
But if it is interpreted to mean the land “delivers similar functions,” he said, then one needs to look, for example, at whether “cultivated lands grow crops.”
He acknowledged that the government’s findings indicated that many wellsites had reduced the land’s ability to grow crops.
“It looks like there’s a legacy related to the fact that there was a well pad there before,” he concluded.
According to McIntosh, sites examined in the government pilot project often show a “halted or arrested successional trajectory” — meaning they are on a slow, or virtually non-existent, path to full recovery.
“We’ve always sort of thought if you gave them enough time, they’d go back [to their previous condition],” she said.
Terry Osko, a reclamation research consultant with a PhD in wildlife ecology, who has worked in the field for 20 years is hesitant to draw too many conclusions about the future. “Moving forward there should be fewer and fewer,” sites that show such stilted recovery, he told The Narwhal. Site reclaimed today, he said, “are probably not going to be in as rough of shape as ones that were from the 70s.”
Others worry that no one is checking that sites certified today are recovering.
Alberta Environment and Parks’ Land Policy Branch told The Narwhal by e-mail that “no policy changes are being contemplated at this time for long-term monitoring of lands” that have received reclamation certificates.
Researchers, presenting in New Orlean this past August at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting, made the government project’s conclusions clear.
“Wellsite development impacts can be long lasting and may remain for 50 years or more after reclamation,” they noted.
“Some sites are not recovering with time.”
“Our goal is getting the science out,’ McIntosh told The Narwhal. “It’s in the government’s hands to decide to what do with it.”
Despite the poor scores of reclaimed sites studied by the government, less than three per cent of certificates have been cancelled by the regulator since 2016.
Some twenty per cent of applications are audited. An audit can mean only a desktop review of the application done by a human “reclamation assessor” — were all the application’s fields filled out correctly? Is the site location correct? — but does not imply any field work is done by the regulator.
The regulator declined to comment on the number of field inspections they have conducted.
Information obtained by The Narwhal found the number of field inspectors — who can accompany reclamation assessors on site inspections — has declined by 16 per cent since the Alberta Energy Regulator took over enforcement from Alberta Environment in 2013.
The regulator was unable to tell The Narwhal how many reclamation assessors it currently employs.
This means that the majority of on-site evaluation is left to the company, and the professional tasked with signing off on the application — ranging from foresters to agrologists to engineering technologists.
According to the government’s presentation, it’s a “professional judgement-based system,” rather than an “evidence-based” system.
Terry Osko, the reclamation research consultant, has faith in his colleagues. “I think it would be quite rare to have shoddy work done in the field because [consultants] are good people by and large and all regulated by professional organizations,” he told The Narwhal.
The Alberta Institute of Agrologists is one of those professional organizations. It’s made up of about 2,800 members, according to David Lloyd, the Institute’s CEO.
Lloyd told The Narwhal that the organization’s members are held to a code of ethics, and the profession has a new set of standards meant to “identify the knowledge, skills, experience and the kinds of judgment or decisions that one should make.” The standards are meant to be “self-assessed,” he said and “are not punitive, but supportive.”
He added that the Institute plans to start “random practise reviews” of its members in the very near future — something that no other professional organizations in the field do.
“I believe our members are ethical and competent,” he said. “And if they’re not, we’ll hear about it… from landowners [or] another professional colleague.”
If a professional is reported to have violated their code of conduct, and an investigation finds the claim to be credible, the Institute has a variety of punitive tools available, according to Lloyd — ranging from revoking or suspending professional practise permits, levying a fine to requiring courses be taken (like an ethics course).
But some worry the regulator has insufficient capacity to oversee industry and the consultants it contracts. As one consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, put it, “the [regulator] is just watered down. It doesn’t have the capacity. It’s jack of all trades, master of none.”
Reclamation consultants, he said, need to be prepared to be “challenged” by companies eager to “get that liability off the books.”
“I’ve heard that the clients of our members can sometimes put pressure on [them],” Lloyd told The Narwhal. “It’s up to [the professionals] to decide how to handle that as professional. They have a requirement to make the right decision.”
When it comes to interpreting standards, some worry there’s too much leeway. One agrologist who spoke with The Narwhal on the condition of anonymity, said “10 different people [have] 10 different ways to interpret something.”
One consultant who has worked in reclamation in Alberta’s boreal forests for more than 10 years — who asked his name not be used because he’s “not old enough to retire” — told The Narwhal he’s very concerned about the standards used when he’s asked to assess a site.
“Disturbed sites are extremely hard to reclaim,” he said.
He works in forests, and sees a disturbing trend in re-planting. “What we’re doing now in reclamation — what I’m required to do — does not come anywhere close to [proper reclamation],” he told The Narwhal.
“I’m not setting it on a trajectory to heal. They’re monocultures.”
He acknowledges that reclamation criteria have improved over the years — a company can no longer simply plant an area to grass if it used to be forest, for example — but he still sees issues with the reclamation criteria.
“Many of the decisions they’re making are based on money,” he says, explaining that the “simplest” or “easiest” species to replant are often chosen, with very little regard for biodiversity, and that there is too often a lack of training of the people doing the reclamation, so that many replanted trees often die.
When he goes out to check if a forest has been restored on a site, he just needs to find “some woody species,” even if the replanted trees have died, he explains. Rose bushes will often do. If he finds some, he says, “I can still certify it.”
“That is nothing like the forest we cut out.”
While he’s adamant this has negative impacts for the area, he has no way of following up, as monitoring isn’t required once that certificate is issued. “I don’t know how long that site is going to be stagnated for,” he laments.
“I’ve never had to return to a site,” he said. “I’ve had sites where I wished I could have, but I didn’t have to, because they passed.”
Another consultant who also spoke with The Narwhal on the condition of anonymity — a professional agrologist with 20 years of experience in the field — said that he was mostly concerned with the front-end of oil and gas activity: the construction of wellsites.
“When it comes to any sort of disturbance of any kind of ecological system,” he said, “you’re destroying the natural ecosystem.” The goal, then, is to try to do the best you can to get it on the right path from the get-go.
But he’s concerned that there’s little environmental input until a company decides it wants to reclaim a site.
The attitude during construction, he said, is too often, “move the dirt, get it out of the way, get the pad drilled, get it producing.”
While regulations and ideas about reclamation have improved over time, he said, “[contractors] just do what they did ten years ago.”
“There’s still a lot of cowboy stuff.”
He’s concerned that the majority of the environmental input is thrust onto reclamation, and that education and pre-planning could help solve a lot of problems. “They’re on the back end, trying to fix what happened on the front end.”
Osko, the reclamation research consultant with a PhD in wildlife ecology, has a pragmatic approach. “Since I started back in 1999, the improvement in practise is taking off kind of exponentially,” he told The Narwhal.
But the reclamation process could, in his mind, still be improved — perhaps a preliminary reclamation certificate could be issued, for example, with a required follow-up before it’s finalized. The timing of that, he added, could take into account the expected recovery time, based on site type or local ecology.
“It varies within industry, within companies, and with sort of the economic situation, how much effort is put into the process,” he noted.
And when it comes to the notion that companies will only meet the minimum standard required of them, he said, “everybody pays income tax, nobody wants to pay more income tax then the government wants them to pay.”
But he’s encouraged by companies he’s worked with who, he said, are motivated to do more than the minimum. There is, he told The Narwhal, “both economic and social incentive for responsible stewardship.”
Overall, Osko is optimistic that industry is on an upwards trajectory. “Some days I’m discouraged by what I see, but I stay in it because I’m overall encouraged.”
Though each individual wellsite is small, the cumulative effects of so much industrial activity may be much larger.
As a 2017 study published in the journal Forests put it, the footprints of oil and gas activity are “small but numerous, creating many disturbances across a large area.”
“They’re sort of little postage stamps peppered across the landscape,” said McIntosh.
There are approximately 450,000 wells in Alberta, roughly one for every 1.4 square kilometres — and that’s not including the tens of thousands that have already been issued reclamation certificates.
Billions are dollars need to be spent in Alberta just to get wellsites to the reclamation certificate phase — and there are concerns about whether industry will be able to pay.
And some wonder if the buck will stop there. If certified sites aren’t recovering ecologically — or agriculturally — critics worry that Albertans have given up more than they signed up for.
For many, there are questions — shouldn’t the regulator be checking the work of industry and private consultants? And who is ensuring that reclamation is truly a restoring a landscape, if no one ever goes back to find out?
Over the course of numerous interviews, one particular sentiment came through loud and clear: Albertans deserve to know whether the province’s reclamation program is functioning as intended — and whether anyone is checking to make sure it works in the long-term, too.
Back in Wainwright, Mike Smith warms up some of his wife’s soup for lunch, then goes down into his basement to retrieve some of the mementos he kept from his long career. He wants to show us the inspirational quotes he tacked up next to his desk, and a shovel he used to inspect sites for years.
After checking the soil at countless sites, the shovel finally broke, so Smith — sentimental about it after all those years — cleaned it up, took it back to his office and affixed a message to it.
“Snapped under pressure,” it reads.
The shovel hung on the wall next to his computer until he retired.
*Update December 7, 2018, 9:30am pst. To address reader questions, this article was updated to note that Alberta Environment and Parks declined to make the scientist who gave the presentation related to well reclamation available to The Narwhal for an interview.
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