The state as the servant of the corporations

The oil source from the 1950s has not produced since 2015, but still penetratingly eats hydrogen sulphide smelling of rotten eggs and probably also odour-free, highly flammable methane. The farmer, on whose land the old spring is located, was only told not to get too close to her.

She’s not the only one in Canada. In total, there are 97,000 abandoned oil and gas sources from which a toxic mixture of greenhouse gases has been rising into the air for decades. Canada is a country that takes climate change seriously and is committed to reducing CO2 emissions. It blames the oil and gas industry for about half of annual methane emissions, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. At the heart of hydrocarbon extraction, in the state of Alberta, methane emissions from active plants are to be reduced by 45 percent by 2025. However, the decommissioned ones are just as harmful to the climate.

The rapid growth of the industry has caused not only great successes but also a number of failures. These, in turn, are responsible for the huge backlog in the proper decommissioning of inactive wells, which grows by about six percent annually. 97 920 installations are currently considered to be ‘temporarily cancelled’. In addition, there are around 160,000 active sources. While it is highly unlikely that the inactive ones will ever be put back into operation, they are not really decommissioned. About 30,000 plants have been abandoned for more than ten years. Less than 0.2 percent will ever be reactivated.

No one knows how many of these sources continue to emit methane and other pollutants. Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage told The New York Times, “This is a problem that has been fermenting for decades.” In fact, companies should be required by law to permanently shut down sources after ten years of inactivity. But the industry resisted, and in 2000 regulation was changed: since then, sources have been allowed to lie idle indefinitely.

1.7 billion taxpayers' money

In the spring, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would launch a fund worth 1.7 billion Canadian dollars to permanently shut down the inactive sources in Canada. The fund is part of the Corona stimulus package for the gas and oil industry. So far, applications have been made in Alberta for just 8,200 such facilities, less than one in ten.

With age, the risk of leakage also increases. The concrete and steel pipes reach deep into the earth’s interior. Erosion, salt water, corrosive gases and earthquakes damage infrastructure. There is little data on the abandoned wells in Alberta, and they are also not included in the new methane monitoring program for active sources, which began in January.

In neighboring British Columbia, researchers found that 29 percent of the decommissioned sources are leaking. Even plants that are properly taken out of service can lick. Between 2009 and 2014, the Alberta Department of Energy found that 7.7 percent of such wells were leaking.

In July, Alberta’s Energy Minister Savage announced a regulation that requires companies to spend four percent of their annual cleanup budgets on proper decommissioning of sources. While some companies do so voluntarily, others “spend zero”. It is mainly companies that, according to Savage, “live from hand to mouth.” In Alberta, there are no plans to force these companies to comply with the rules, and there are no deadlines.

On the contrary, the environment ‘assessment’ is the responsibility of the landowners. They are to file a complaint about the state of the springs on their land. The supervision of gas and oil companies is thus delegated to the farmers and landowners.

Especially cynical: farmers own the land they cultivate, but what lies beneath the ground does not belong to them. If an oil company acquires the mineral rights, the landowner must allow drilling. For this, he receives an annual compensation to compensate for the loss of productivity.

No one knows how many old oil and gas wells have been licking for decades. Companies are not legally obliged to notify them to the state in order to be included in the energy regulator’s database.