Government ignores costs of cleaning up oil and gas wells in Quebec

The Quebec government still does not know how much the bill will be for cleaning up dozens of abandoned oil and gas wells on its territory, many of which have been leaking hydrocarbons for years. Decontaminating some of these wells could cost taxpayers millions of dollars, based on available data. But we still have to find companies to carry out the work, which Quebec hopes to complete by 2023.

At a time when the Legault government is preparing a bill that should make it possible to offer financial compensation to oil and gas companies that will have to give up their exploration permits, the Quebec state must also plan to spend tens of millions of dollars. to restore abandoned wells that leak natural gas or oil. Some were drilled over a century ago.

The duty noted, however, that it is currently impossible to obtain a precise estimate of the costs of decontamination of exploration wells, which are the responsibility of the Quebec government. According to data from the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MERN), 534 “inactive” wells have been located since 2018, and 241 others have not been found, despite inspections carried out by the ministry. Of this number, 209 are considered “non-locatable”, and therefore lost forever.

Among the inactive wells located, the MERN assesses that 95 will require “works”, for example to stop natural gas or oil leaks. However, the only list including an assessment of the restoration costs per well dates from March 31, 2020 and it only has 30 wells recorded as “liabilities for contaminated sites” (PTSC). The ministry sent us a more recent list, dated March 31, 2021. It has 44 wells, but it no longer includes a cost estimate, unlike the 2020 list.

The March 2020 list, however, gives an overview of the scale of the bill awaiting Quebec taxpayers to overcome this toxic legacy.

For a single well 4,000 meters deep, drilled in 1996 southeast of Trois-Rivières by the company Genoil, the “amount” entered in the PTSC is $ 14.1 million. For another well drilled in the same area in 1956, the costs were estimated at over $ 7 million. The inspectors of the ministry noted there “a strong odor of hydrocarbon”, contamination of the ground by oil, a migration of gas which represents “a risk” under the Law on hydrocarbons.

No bidder

Why are these bills so high? MERN’s inspection reports offer few details, but the ministry said that pending a more precise estimate, “the cost of liability is assessed based on the depth of the wells.” In order to obtain a more detailed assessment, the government launched two calls for tenders this year to find a company responsible for drawing up “a program for the permanent closure of inactive hydrocarbon wells” and for supervising the work to be done. to come. On two occasions, the call for tenders had to be canceled, the last time being on November 25, for lack of a bidder.

At the moment, the 30 wells for which the MERN has entered a cost estimate lead us to a total bill of $ 54 million, in which 16 wells are valued at over $ 1 million. But this estimate concerns less than a third of the 95 wells officially charged to the State. All of these wells were drilled by companies that have long since ceased to exist.

Some of these wells were indeed drilled at the end of the 19th century.e century in the Gaspé and they still leak crude oil on the surface today, which has contaminated the soil, according to what emerges from inspection reports of recent years, with supporting photos. This is the case with the wells of the Petroleum Oil Trust company, including one drilled in 1891 in Gaspé and whose cleaning bill is estimated at $ 3.4 million. In this case, the inspectors of the ministry also noted in 2019 “a strong leak of methane”, a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than CO2, over a period of 20 years.

“Surprise boxes”

Member of the Scientific Collective on the question of shale gas and energy issues in Quebec, Marc Brullemans is categorical, after analyzing the government reports: the bill will continue to climb, as the MERN obtains more evaluations. details of the costs of restoring these wells, which sometimes constitute “surprise boxes”.

According to him, it is also likely that there will be more than 95 wells requiring work, especially if we take into account certain wells registered as “active”. The list provided to To have to by the MERN has 132 of these wells, which theoretically have an owner. However, several of these companies, some of which were active in the search for shale gas barely a decade ago, have since left Quebec.

The spokesperson for Environnement vert plus, Pascal Bergeron, believes that some old oil wells located in the Gaspé could even have contaminated groundwater, over decades of leaks. “Will we one day see that groundwater has been irremediably contaminated?” We do not know, but the MERN must verify the extent of the pollution. It is a big problem to manage in the Gaspé, and we must act quickly. “

At the office of the minister responsible for the MERN, Jonatan Julien, it is assured that the government remains on course for its objective of treating 100% of “inactive” wells by the end of 2023. After the phase of research and inspections of these wells, from 2018 to 2021, the ministry now hopes to find “specialized firms” to take charge of the work.

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