Province working on plan for abandoned oil wells

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Black symbols mark oil wells in Petrolia, many of which are abandoned.

Over a year and a half after an explosion demolished two buildings and injured 20 people in Wheatley, the Ontario government is meeting with municipal leaders hoping to find ways to deal with 27,000 abandoned oil wells in the province.

Oil Springs Mayor Ian Veen and Plympton-Wyoming Gary Atkinson were among the politicians invited to a meeting in Chatham-Kent recently to talk about the abandoned wells and what the government could do. The problem is massive.

The Oil, Gas and Salt Resources Library estimates there are 3,000 active oil wells in Ontario and another 24,000 abandoned wells.

The black dots saturating OGSR Map around Oil Springs and Petrolia proves this is the heart of the early oil industry – hundreds of abandoned wells are in the area. Aside from the active historic wells owned by Fairbank Oil, Oil Springs is dotted with long forgotten wells

In Petrolia, the abandoned wells are everywhere, according to the OGSR Map; in the middle of Petrolia Line, around the Waste Management landfill on Oil Heritage Road, near Queen Elizabeth II Public School and in the land surrounding Kingswell Glen golf course which is currently under development for new housing.

There are also dozens of wells on the property surrounding the Petrolia Y.

Veen attended the meeting with the Minister of Natural Resources, Graydon Smith and says mapping of the various oil wells in Lambton County took place 20 years ago,.

Veen – who is in the business of drilling and fixing oil wells –  believes there were still many old wells which were never mapped because they are so well hidden.

Veen says builders in the area will often find abandoned wells in development sites. The well could be leaking and contaminating the ground. Fluids can then escape from the abandoned wells, staining the soil and killing off vegetation.

Hydrogen sulphide, a poisonous gas which smells like rotten eggs, may also be released.  There might also be high pressured flammability as oil and gas might be released at high pressures around wells.

Veen says old wells are supposed to be capped and it is up to the property owner to complete the task. Often, the task is overlooked.

The explosion in Wheatley was caused by an abandoned well which had not been properly vented. The gas build up blew apart buildings, injuring people nearby. The community still isn’t able to access some areas of the downtown.

“The explosion in the community of Wheatley has emphasized the need to provide additional support to municipalities and landowners through enhanced prevention and preparedness measures,” says Eric Mick, acting senior issues and media advisor for the MNR.

He says the province “has established a specialized team and committed additional resources to work on solutions to address the challenges and risks posed by legacy oil and gas wells. “We are investing in new programs and tools, while focusing on making information and support more accessible.

Mick adds “Ontario will consider a range of actions and supports including policy changes, new or enhanced programs, opportunities for outreach, new partnerships and improved information sharing.”

The meeting in Chatham-Kent was “a first step” according to Mick. The province is also meeting with Indigenous communities, and industry leaders to “better understand their specific concerns, challenges, and priorities.”

While there is no indication how long it may take to deal with the issue of orphaned wells, Mick says there will be opportunity for the public to give feedback on the government’s plan.

One group keeping a close eye on this is the The executive director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, Mark Tishman, executive director, met with the minister in October to talk about the abandoned wells and to urge the province to do something to neuter them.

Smaller fire departments, which commonly rely on volunteers, often lack the specialized gas detectors or other equipment needed to respond to an incident like the one in Wheatley, he said. “I believe every fire chief in the province is keeping a keen eye on this,” he added.