Orphaned oil and gas wells have green energy potential

Photo credits: Michael Wilson/CBC; Orphan Well Association.

Tens of thousands of dormant oil and gas wells sit idle across Alberta, an inventory the province wants to shrink in the coming months with the help of $1 billion from the federal government.

But as Alberta implements its strategy for cleaning up orphan and inactive wells, there are calls for the provincial government to also look at using some of the funds to provide new opportunities for some sites.

Advocates say well infrastructure, such as wellbores, roads and pad space, could find other energy uses, including geothermal, micro-solar, hydrogen, recovery of lithium or carbon capture and storage.

“There’s a subset of those sites, a rather large subset, that are really good candidates for … other energy purposes,” said Marla Orenstein, director of the natural resources centre at the Canada West Foundation.

Alberta has nearly 3,000 orphan wells — oil and gas wells that haven’t been remediated by their often-bankrupt owners. (There are more than 90,000 inactive wells, which remain in corporate hands but sit idle for economic reasons.)

Last month, Ottawa announced it would provide Alberta with $1 billion to help clean up those sites, including a $200-million loan to the Orphan Well Association, an industry-funded group that cleans up orphaned infrastructure.

The provincial government has since announced oilfield services firms will be able to apply for grants under the oilfield rehabilitation program.

Orenstein said the money — and the jobs the work will create — is a good start. “If we can figure out how to direct that money toward not just reclaiming but also re-purposing, we’ll provide a real advantage to the province and the country,” she said.

Nothing in the plans that the province has announced so far includes funds for repurposing sites.

Tristan Goodman, president of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, said the vast majority of the funds should go to the clean-up work that was at the core of Ottawa’s announcement.

He agreed, however, that there is potential in repurposing older wells for geothermal in some circumstances. “But it’s not as simple as every well will be a geothermal candidate.”

Juli Rohl, who works for the Alberta-based Energy Futures Lab, suggested some old sites could be used for solar projects, as they may already have the road access, the lease, a gravelled site and nearby power lines to tie into.

But Rohl said there are questions of liability — namely, responsibilities any company may have to the actual owner of the land the wells are on.

She said startup companies that are able to re-purpose these sites “don’t have the ability to take on huge amounts of liability right [from] the get-go. And the operators, who are holding this liability, want to get it off their books.

“Sorting out who has the liability and how that’s handled in the future is the biggest question and the biggest challenge for this.”

Orenstein said there are also regulatory changes that would be required, like altering rules that say industrial sites have to be returned to their original conditions before they can be repurposed for new energy uses.

But if the government wants to make things happen, Rohl said, there are companies ready to go.

“It’s not as though we need to wait for the technology to catch up — we just need the framework for collaboration.” SOURCE

— Tony Seskus

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