The only growing business in the oilpatch: dead wells

More oil and gas wells will be decommissioned in Alberta this year than new wells drilled


A rig crew works to clean up an old natural gas well near Stettler, Alta. The growth potential for decommissioning wells is substantial considering there are about 93,000 inactive wells in Alberta and 139,000 across Western Canada. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

In the middle of a farmer’s field, the rumble of machinery can be heard half a kilometre away.

There aren’t any tractors or combines in sight. Instead a collection of cement and water trucks and other equipment surround a large service rig.

The crew would much rather be busy drilling new oil and gas wells, but with the oilpatch stuck in a seemingly endless downward spiral, the rig hands are just happy to get a cheque.

Much of the work is like this: decommissioning old wells.

“The last three months have been pretty good. Things are picking up a little bit,” said Jonathan Hofer, a 26-year-old who began working on the rigs when he was 15.

“When I first started working on the rigs, you were busy all the time. Now, if you get two weeks in a month or sometimes one week, you do pretty good,” he said.

In the middle of a farmer’s field, the rumble of machinery can be heard half a kilometre away.There aren’t any tractors or combines in sight. Instead a collection of cement and water trucks and other equipment surround a large service rig.

The crew would much rather be busy drilling new oil and gas wells, but with the oilpatch stuck in a seemingly endless downward spiral, the rig hands are just happy to get a cheque.

Much of the work is like this: decommissioning old wells.

“The last three months have been pretty good. Things are picking up a little bit,” said Jonathan Hofer, a 26-year-old who began working on the rigs when he was 15.

“When I first started working on the rigs, you were busy all the time. Now, if you get two weeks in a month or sometimes one week, you do pretty good,” he said.



Cleaning up old wells is the only growing business right now in the oilpatch in Western Canada. Still, the rise in business is somewhat limited and is just enough to help keep some small oilfield service companies in business.

Without it, many more of the firms would go belly up.

“I joke the only thing worse than being in the service rig business is being in the drilling rig business right now,” said Scott Darling, president of Performance Energy Services. About 70 of the 100 people employed at the business are focused on decommissioning old wells. MORE

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