Alta. well site reclamation gets bad grade

Gov’t scientist says follow-up work doesn’t adequately ensure land is returned to equivalent state before development

BANFF, ALTA. — Alberta’s conservation and reclamation program on former energy sites is not working properly, said a government land scientist.

Once a former well site is certified as reclaimed, nobody follows up to make sure the land was returned to an equivalent state before development, said Arnold Janz, a land scientist with Alberta Environment and Parks.

“There is a province-wide information gap on the long-term impacts and ecological performance of reclaimed and certified lands,” he said at the Alberta Institute of Agrologists annual meeting held in Banff April 3-5.

Ten years ago, he started work on a monitoring program on well sites, coal mines, oil sands and gravelpit sites to measure long-term recovery of soils and plants on certified reclamation sites.

“We assume that the physical, chemical and biological conditions are conserved at certified sites in Alberta. We generally assume that current programs will assure equivalent land capability, which is the provincial standard,” he said.

“We assume that the long-term impacts of these activities on Alberta’s private and public lands are well known and predictable. We assume that ecological impacts on private and public lands are minimal and will diminish over time,” he said.

He was part of a three-year pilot project that selected 73 certified oil and gas wells on forest, range and cultivated lands that were reclaimed and signed off between 1964-2011.

The project finished in 2015 and department staff is now analyzing data from more than 7,800 soil samples and 8,000 vegetation records.

They used the land-suitability rating system from Agriculture Canada to assess land capability from class one to seven. Their research also used satellite imagery that showed there is crop stress on a reclaimed site.

“We haven’t really improved our land capability on our well sites and I think that is a problem,” he said.

“At year 10 after certification, you have got a wide range of recovery scores, which tells me our system is really inconsistent in how it certifies,” he said.

He wants a science-based assessment system and long-term monitoring of sites rather than the current certification system that relies heavily on professional judgment.

When energy companies enter a property they should behave like guests on the land, said Alberta lawyer Keith Wilson, who specializes in environmental and agriculture law.

Landowners receive compensation for infringement of property rights, damages and impacts, including loss of use, adverse effects, nuisance and inconvenience while the site is operating.

Now with the growing problem of orphan wells in the province, the environment suffers.

“We have this growing backlog of inactive wells that are not being sealed and are not being reclaimed,” he said.

“Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North America that has no clear time line when an oil company has to clean up an old well site,” he said.

An orphan well fund exists but there is no financial fitness test to show whether companies are capable of managing clean up on sites.

The head of Synergy Alberta said an agricultural as well as an environmental impact assessment is needed when new developments are proposed.

“This could take it to the next step to show what might happen on that particular operation. The more understanding everybody has about the nuances of this shows the challenges but it also presents opportunities,” said Rick Anderson.

Alberta Agriculture is not involved in any capacity even though these projects are in rural areas where farmers and ranchers are asking how to handle the companies coming on their land, he said.

Farmers and ranchers know how their operations run but they do not know what might happen with wells and pipelines coming on their property. Agrologists are needed as part of the team because they understand the land and can fill in communication gaps.

In hindsight, many farmers say they would do things differently before signing any contracts.

A company may have been planning a development for several years and then a land agent shows up at the farmer’s house and wants them to sign right way.

The farm family feels at a disadvantage because they think the company knows what it is doing. They may not know what questions to ask.

Compensation packages are offered first and then they talk about the nuances of the impacts. This minimizes the ability to negotiate because the money has already been accepted.

“The regulators can tell you what activities are going on your property but they don’t tell you the impacts,” said Anderson.

There are a number of synergy groups around the province and they can help landowners get more information on access, pipelines, hydraulic fracturing, various environmental impacts and working with land agents.

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