pump jack Alberta Todd Korol The Narwhal

Report ‘buried’ by Alberta government reveals ‘mounting evidence’ that oil and gas wells aren’t reclaimed in the long run

A previously unreleased report obtained by The Narwhal shows a government division — soon to be scrapped by premier Jason Kenney — raised red flags about the province’s failing system for wellsite cleanup

The Narwhal has obtained a previously unreleased report commissioned by the Alberta government that raises red flags about whether the government’s own program to ensure oil and gas sites are cleaned up is actually working in the long term. 

The 55-page report, obtained through a freedom of information request, cites “mounting evidence” that Alberta’s land reclamation program is not ensuring former oil and gas sites meet regulatory requirements in the long run, and instead confirms that, of the sites studied so far by an internal government pilot project, all but one failed to meet the government’s standards.

A former senior government official (who asked to remain anonymous) with knowledge of the report told The Narwhal that releasing the report was “seen as an extreme risk to the department” and that there was “extreme pushback” against it being made public. 

The former official described the report as a “valuable piece of science” and one “that needed to be publicly reported.”

But “politically inconvenient” reports, the official said, were often “buried” within the department, regardless of the government in power.

The province’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government has indicated that the office that has been working on this research — the environmental monitoring and science department — will soon be eliminated, and its staff “integrated” into other government departments.

‘The public needs to know that this land is being degraded’

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. 

For the last century, oil and gas companies have made a promise to Albertans — that the wells they’ve drilled across the province would one day be cleaned up. Companies promised that land would be returned to just as good as before drilling, sometimes even boldly claiming it would end up even better.

The Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the legislation that governs how companies must act to protect the environment, requires that operators — like those drilling oil and gas wells — fulfill “the objective of protecting the essential physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the environment against degradation.”

But the report finds that the government’s reclamation certificate program is unable to ensure this is happening in the long run.

The government updated its reclamation criteria in 2010, requiring cleaned-up well sites to achieve a sort of equivalence with nearby land. The government issues certificates to sites to mark them as officially cleaned up, called reclamation certificates. 

However, many reclaimed sites are not actually reclaimed at all, according to the report. 

In farmer’s fields, the exact outlines of well pads may be clearly visible through crop degradation. 

Drone shot well reclamation Alberta

A drone shot used in a presentation made by an Alberta Environment and Parks scientist at an Alberta Institute of Agrologists conference in April 2018. The image clearly shows lingering crop degradation, long after a reclamation certificate was issued. The Alberta Institute of Agrologists told The Narwhal in fall 2018 that “there was unwanted negativity toward s[the] findings.” Image: Alberta Environment and Parks

In forested areas, there may be no trees where wells used to be.

Peter Eggers, a farmer in northern Alberta, told The Narwhal last year that an old well site on his property that has received a certificate is known locally as “the spot where nothing grows.” 

As John Begg, recently retired senior manager of public land policy and former manager of the public land reclamation program with the Government of Alberta, told The Narwhal: “The public needs to know that this land is being degraded.”

“The fact that a … certificate is issued doesn’t mean everything is good — or is going to be good in 20 or 30 years.”

Shari Clare, a professional biologist and one of the authors of the report, told The Narwhal by email that the provincial government is “very focused on the short-term goal of issuing reclamation certificates, with the assumption that once a site is certified it will continue to improve through time.”

But, she said, “there is evidence to suggest that this is not the case.”

Long-term impacts of wells ‘largely unknown’

Companies are supposed to restore an area where a well has been drilled to “equivalent land capability,” a term that — according to the report — has turned out to be more subjective than one might imagine. The government uses an extensive list of criteria to compare an old well site to a nearby piece of land that hasn’t been drilled.

In the public understanding, a reclamation certificate should ensure that the site of an oil or gas well has been returned to an environmentally acceptable state. 

The report’s authors note “the ecological implications of certification remain largely unknown,” citing a number of factors, including a lack of any long-term monitoring of well pads after they are certified.

“[S]ites are underperforming long after certification,” the authors write, referring to reclamation certificates issued by the regulator once it deems sufficient work has been done. 

They note previous research has shown “a large number of certified well sites do not meet an acceptable standard,” as defined by the government.

Alberta Environment and Parks did not respond to The Narwhal’s repeated requests for an interview.

Terrex Energy oil operations near Carsland, Alberta.

Oil operations near Carseland, Alta. An author of a previously unreleased report on the long-term reclamation of sites like these told The Narwhal that the government and the provincial energy regulator are “very focused on the short-term goal of issuing reclamation certificates, with the assumption that once a site is certified it will continue to improve through time.” Her research found “mounting evidence” that this is not the case. Photo: Todd Korol

Alberta’s reclamation certificate program is overseen by the Alberta Energy Regulator, an independent corporation funded entirely by industry that oversees the regulation of oil and gas activities in Alberta.

The Alberta Energy Regulator declined to make anyone available for an interview and instead requested questions submitted by email.

Shawn Roth, a spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator, said in an emailed response that the regulator has “concerns with the methodology and interpretations made in the report.”

He noted that the sites studied received a reclamation certificate before the government’s current criteria were being used to evaluate equivalent land capability. “A site should not be reassessed using criteria that came into place after its reclamation certificate was granted as criteria evolve over time,” he wrote.

But the report notes that, currently, a “fairly substantive number of reclamation certificates are being issued for sites that do not meet the 2010 criteria,” because the regulator grants exceptions to companies by labelling their applications as “non-routine.”

“This raises important questions regarding long-term liability of these sites, that will eventually shift to Albertans on both private and public land,” the report’s authors write.

Clare, one of the authors of the report, told The Narwhal that “while the government insists that the new (2010) reclamation guidelines will result in better outcomes, there is no requirement to monitor these sites once they have been certified.”

And, as others point out, the massive number of sites that have already been certified as reclaimed may be a liability Alberta needs to deal with.

“Some of the things that are diminished are maybe permanent,” Begg said. “It’s not necessarily fixing itself over time.”

Alberta’s Energy Regulator’s public reporting is ‘not transparent’

The report alludes to a brewing regulatory failure to oversee the reclamation certificate process in the first place.

The report — which dubs the Alberta Energy Regulator’s public reporting as “not transparent with respect to very basic metrics,” “somewhat opaque,” and “unlikely to be informative” — was provided to the Alberta Energy Regulator in 2018 by Government of Alberta staff, according to emails obtained through a freedom of information request. 

The report contains a lengthy analysis of Alberta’s reclamation laws, policies and regulations and raises concerns about the Alberta Energy Regulator.

In it, the authors wave a red flag about the regulator’s audit system, which relies on a program for certification that is largely automated and seldom sends auditors out into the field to check the work of consultants hired to fill out applications for reclamation certificates. 

Percentage of field audits completed

Less than three per cent of sites that have received reclamation certificates from the Alberta Energy Regulator have been visited as part of an audit of the site’s approval, which is largely automated. The public has frequently been told 15 per cent of sites would be visited for an audit. Graph: Sharon J. Riley, Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

The authors interviewed practitioners who work in reclamation. Those practitioners felt the “audit system resulted in a greater proportion of poorly performing sites being certified, as there was less regulatory oversight in the audit system.”

Begg, the retired former manager of Alberta’s public land reclamation program, is concerned there are few consequences for a company when an audit reveals a site should have failed. “When there’s an audit failure there’s got to be drastic consequences, other than just failing the site,” he said.

Currently if an audit reveals a site should have failed, the company will simply need to update its application and complete any work to ensure the site passes next time.

The report suggested there is a large amount of leeway for the consultants that sign off on reclamation jobs, even if they may not meet the criteria required by the government.

Following an analysis of data provided by the regulator, the report found a “fairly substantive number of reclamation certificates are being issued for sites that do not meet the [government’s] criteria.”  

And that’s a problem — as the government has no mechanism to monitor the health of sites in the long term.

The report noted “there are no formal or legislated post-reclamation metrics against which to evaluate reclamation outcomes longer-term.” 

And with the soon-to-be elimination of the government division that was looking into long-term monitoring, it seems unlikely there will be any type of metric in the future.

No consensus a reclaimed well site is ‘actually going to grow a tree again’

The report notes that forestry operators have long found that certified well sites in the boreal region “do not support trees with the same growth and yield” and that farmers and landowners report that crop productivity on certified well sites is not comparable to the rest of their fields.

According to Begg, “on forested well sites, there isn’t consensus it’s actually going to grow a tree again.” 

reclamation oil and gas well forest

A ‘reclaimed’ oil and gas well in Yellowhead County, 250 kilometres west of Edmonton, Alberta. The landscape has not been returned to its former state. Image: Screenshot / Google Maps

The problem is often with the soil.

As Larry Brocke, former director of the Government of Alberta’s land reclamation division in the ’90s, put it in an interview with the Petroleum History Society, “You can’t put it back the way it was immediately. You just can’t.”

Roth, the spokesperson for the regulator, noted in an email that “companies remain responsible for surface issues related to reclamation for 25 years after receiving a reclamation certificate. They are also permanently responsible for contamination and any infrastructure left beneath the surface.”

But there are concerns that issues with reclamation may not be noticed for years, or even decades, particularly on remote public lands where there is no nearby landowner to keep a watchful eye.

And the question remains: how long does it take for land to get “back to what it was before” after oil and gas development? Or can it?

No one knows what will happen in the future

The Alberta Energy Regulator received the report in 2018. Nothing appears to have changed since the findings were shared among government officials.

Roth from the regulator wrote by email that “while we are not currently working on anything specifically with Alberta Environment and Parks, we are always looking for potential improvements to the reclamation certificate process.”

The Narwhal first reported on the Alberta government’s internal pilot project to evaluate a small number of reclaimed well sites in 2018. 

Since then, some of the results of that pilot project have been published for the scientific community.

In research published in November, University of Alberta scientists and their government counterparts found that “well pad impacts can be long lasting and may remain for decades or more post reclamation,” suggesting that regardless of the criteria used to measure a pass or fail, former well sites simply cannot be said to be recovering from the impacts of oil and gas development.

A paper in the Canadian Journal of Soil Science has detailed some of the results of the pilot project — and is sharply critical of the government’s ability to ensure oil and gas wells are truly cleaned up.

“There is a general lack of assurance to the public that intended goals of reclamation and recovery, as expressed in legislation, are achieved at reclaimed and certified well pads,” the authors write. 

The lead author of the paper is a land scientist with the soon-to-be scrapped environmental monitoring and science division of Alberta Environment and Parks.

The authors lambast the government for its lack of monitoring and its failure to collect scientific evidence.

They write that “even after more than five decades of certification history,” the government has not acted to collect any long-term information about the success of the cleanup of well sites.

”This type of scientific evidence is essential … to assure citizens that public and private land will be protected.”

The authors undertook a pilot project, called the ecological recovery monitoring project, that found “significant” environmental and crop impacts of oil and gas wells long after the government had signed off on reclamation certificates.

Pipeline affect farmer crops Fairview Alberta

The path of a buried pipeline is clearly visible in a farmer’s fields near Fairview, Alta. Some farmers have long been concerned with the impacts of oil and gas infrastructure on their crops. A report obtained through a freedom-of-information request has warned that even after oil and gas sites are certified as reclaimed, there may be long-term issues with the productivity of the land. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

The pilot project found “there are long-term oil and gas legacy effects on soils at reclaimed well pads.”

The funding for the ecological recovery monitoring project has since been cut, according to internal emails obtained by The Narwhal through a freedom of information request. 

And in October, CBC reported that the entire environmental science and monitoring division would be dissolved by the UCP government.

‘The most efficient regulatory system is one that doesn’t exist’

It has been internally estimated that it would cost as much as $100 billion for all the wells across the province to meet the government’s standards.

Given how many of these sites exist on the landscape, and the enormous ecological and public liability that this represents, I think that the provincial government should be giving greater attention to this issue,” Clare, one of the authors of the report, said in an email.

There should be, she added, “less focus being put on the number of applications that are being processed, and more focus being put on the quality of those sites.”

This report raises serious questions about what happens if sites still don’t meet standards, even after they’re certified as reclaimed — at a time when the Alberta government has increasingly put an emphasis on “efficiency” in its regulatory bodies.

“The most efficient regulatory system is one that doesn’t exist,” Begg told me. “It doesn’t create any burden. That’s extremely efficient.”

That sort of system, he laments, would also mean zero oversight for companies operating all over Alberta.

Begg is adamant that more needs to be done to ensure reclamation policies have been working in the province, and that includes ensuring companies invest in reclamation work in the first place. 

“We need policies to have timelines to ensure reclamation occurs,” he tells me.

And, he added, the government — who is responsible for setting reclamation policy — needs to take a step back and fully evaluate whether its program is working (as it appears the report obtained by The Narwhal was intended to do).   

“You’ve got to look back and make sure that the things you’re doing today are delivering what they’re supposed to,” Begg says. 

Eliminating the only government department to date that has tried to do just that, he implies, certainly isn’t helping.

Sharon is The Narwhal's Alberta-based investigative journalist. Her essays, interviews and long-form nonfiction have also been published by The Walrus,…

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