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Freeloading Oil Companies Leave Farmers in the Lurch

Oil companies have made millions drilling on Alberta farmers' land but bailed on the cleanup, leaving families stuck with the waste left behind.

Bill and Sylvia Flesher are a typical couple in Brazeau County. 

They’ve farmed their land together for decades. They are friendly with their neighbours and active in their community. 

And they have orphaned oil wells on their property. Not just one, fourteen of them.

But those wells weren’t always orphans.

The first well was drilled on their farm in the 1960s. And for a long time, things were good. 

“It was sort of like an off-farm job,” Bill told the Narwhal. “We could use that money to buy machinery, subsidize the farming here, and, you know, it really helped as far as money goes.”

But over the years, the industry changed. The wells started to dry up. Bigger companies sold them to smaller companies, and the small ones went out of business. The wells were left to rot. Now, the Fleshers can’t use their land.

A familiar story across Alberta

Thousands of landowners across the province have watched as oil companies walked away from no longer active wells. 

The problem is so bad that the Alberta Energy Regulator doesn’t know precisely how many orphan wells there are in our province nor how much money it will cost to fix them all. But they know it’s a lot.

Lexya Hansen, who lives near the Fleshers, has been trying for years to get help with two orphaned wells on her property. She’s worried they are contaminating her land. But no one can tell her what environmental work has been done on them or the dangers to her land. 

“I think that there’s records of spills, so that’s a potential concern,” she told the Narwhal.

Technically, oil companies are supposed to clean up when they’ve finished a well. They’re supposed to reclaim the land so the landowner can use it again. That was part of the deal when landowners agreed to lease their land in the first place.

Companies aren’t holding up their end of the bargain

“The big companies take the cream off the top,” Sylvia told the Narwhal. “Then as soon as there’s a little bit less production, then they sell it to a smaller company that doesn’t have the resources to be able to reclaim.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator is supposed to keep financially sketchy companies from buying well licenses. However, according to critics, that system has completely fallen apart.

Inactive wells near Cochrane | Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Instead, more and more companies are abandoning wells, leaving landowners in the lurch.

The Fleshers know that cleaning up an old well is possible because the Orphan Well Association, responsible for cleaning up when companies fail, has reclaimed several wells on their property. 

But the companies and the government are to blame, not the Fleshers. Or their neighbour, Lexya Hansen.

Hansen says she’s fed up with how long orphaned wells have been a problem. She thinks the Alberta government needs to do more to keep small, overseas companies from buying wells and bailing on cleanup.

“They just take what they can and then leave, and we’re left with trying to help the government figure out how to handle a massive problem.” 

Helping the government fix a problem they’ve helped create in the first place isn’t something an Albertan commonly needs to do, but when it comes to orphaned wells and farmers, the problem is more and more typical.

To learn more about the increasing problem of orphaned wells, watch this special report below from CTV News.

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