STAUFFER, Alta. — Dennis Murphy says a four acre well site on his farm has turned into a weed-riddled eyesore he wants cleaned up.
After seven years of arguing with regulatory authorities and the oil company holding the lease, he and his partner, Bonny Carson, have had enough.
Murphy says his dispute with Bonavista Energy is not over money. He just wants the suspended oil well on his property cleaned up so he can farm it again.
“It has been a nightmare,” he said from his small mixed farm near Stauffer.
Added Carson: “We want to get our field back to farmable land again. That is all we are asking.”
Some restoration work has been done, but the couple argues it was not done properly. They say the topsoil was not replaced properly, the field is full of ruts, quack grass and thistles and water does not drain because the grade was not restored.
They estimate a proper site remediation would cost about $40,000.
The issue started in 2007 when Encana Corp. obtained a lease on their farm. A contract was signed with the company, the site was cleared and a service road installed.
Encana eventually cancelled the well, sealed it with concrete and then transferred the lease to Bonavista Energy.
Colin Hennal, spokesman for Bonavista said in an email the company does not comment on specific landowner issues.
He said the company has held the lease since 2010 after acquiring it from Encana. The site was reclaimed and a reclamation certificate was received from the Alberta Energy Regulator.
The company said it met the requirements of the Environmental and Sustainable Resource Development reclamation criteria, however the certificate was cancelled and that decision was appealed.
“Bonavista is aware of the issue and are working collectively with the Alberta Energy Regulator in an effort to resolve the landowner’s concerns but Bonavista does not agree that further work is necessary. Company representatives and land agents have been directly involved with this issue,” he wrote.
“Bonavista recently tried to resolve matters to the satisfaction of all parties but were unsuccessful. The landowners have filed another application to the Surface Rights Board that Bonavista will respond to,” he wrote.
Murphy and Carson have received annual compensation for the site, but Murphy refused to sign a new contract when the agreement came up for renewal before the surface rights board late last year until the area has been returned to its former state.
“We have been to the surface rights board with Bonavista twice now, once, with trespassing and with stealing soil off our land and the water issues,” said Carson.
The surface rights board is a quasi-judicial tribunal that grants right of entry and works with landowners and operators to resolve conflicts over compensation when operators require access to private land or occupied crown land to develop subsurface resources such as oil, gas, and coal or to build and operate pipelines and power transmission lines.
Murphy was a dairy farmer in Ontario before moving to this place in 1995.
Now he is close to 70 and thinking of retiring but wonders who would want to buy a pasture with four acres in that kind of condition.
The couple said they have maintained records and taken pictures to document their side of the story.
Edmonton lawyer Keith Wilson, who handles a lot of similar cases, said abandoned wells and lack of remediation are occurring more often in Alberta.
Landowners and mortgage holders consider these untended sites to be a liability.
“It happens way more frequently than people would think,” Wilson said at a public meeting in Trochu April 9.
“Government has no law to enforce timely abandonment or reclamation of these wells,” he said.
Lawyer Shaun Fluker of the University of Calgary, who also has experience in these disputes, said dealing with agencies and regulators is becoming increasingly difficult for landowners.
The issues have become politicized and disputes can end up in court, but judges may not be well equipped to handle them, he added.
Alberta property rights advocate Lee Cutforth raised these issues in his annual report submitted to government last year. His office is aware of problems where companies have not handled reclamations diligently.
“This office will begin a research project to identify and articulate specific ways to reduce the vulnerability of land owners in relation to abandoned or decommissioned resource infrastructure and to have the compensation structure better reflect the associated long-term risks,” said the report.