Alberta sets clean-up date for underground oil and gas wells

The province starts screening for the toxic chemicals leaking from old wells as it attempts to meet its own contamination goals

Alberta is set to become the first Canadian province to force oil and gas industry to pay for the clean-up of old wells and water supplies in an effort to comply with their own pollution standards.

The province has been developing a plan to reduce the leakage of toxic chemicals from outdated wells in a plan that has taken more than a decade to develop.

The criteria defining when abandoned wells must be cleaned up – or required to be remediated – has been unclear, leading to cases where the province has proposed illegal provisions and has fined companies.

The new rules require companies to alert the government if they discover one or more of three chemicals leaking into water supplies. These chemicals include ATB-3, a common, hydrocarbons-based fluid used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids.

In 2017, the province temporarily introduced the new rules as part of their effort to meet their own pollution cleanup goals. An official with the province told the Guardian last summer that companies had since submitted a large number of applications to complete remediation by setting up filtration systems to separate the contaminants from water.

Now the Alberta Energy Regulator has announced it will add more details to the criteria for when the pollutant must be cleaned up and where they must be located on the properties of the companies.

“The primary purpose of these new guidelines is to ensure industry is complying with its obligation to clean up and maintain its current operations,” the regulator’s acting executive director, Alexandra Brodsky, told the Guardian.

But critics say the rules could limit access to land by applicants and conservation groups.

“Alberta’s new plan is a logical part of a new focus on reclaiming old wells to remove contaminants, but allowing the government to decide which applicants get a chance to remediate land they didn’t acquire will always be the Achilles heel of pipeline safety,” Sarah Kendzior, the director of the Alberta-based West Prairie Environmental Law Association, said.

“Every property is unique and must be treated differently. Racketeering by the government means not everyone can clean up their land. And there will always be the next round of pipeline spills.”

Mark Braden, an engineer at the Canadian oil and gas research organisation Ecojustice, said the new regulations should have been established years ago.

“By their own energy standards the Alberta government has less of a stable supply of water than any other oil-producing province,” he said. “These regulations are simply not up to the task and other jurisdictions should follow its lead.”

The changes come in an Alberta election that could see the centre-left New Democratic party return to power after 44 years.

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