HomeNews1Ford government to commit $23.6-million to deal with potentially dangerous old oil-and-gas wells

Ford government to commit $23.6-million to deal with potentially dangerous old oil-and-gas wells

Ford government to commit $23.6-million to deal with potentially dangerous old oil-and-gas wells

The Ontario government plans to spend $23.6-million over three years developing a strategy to identify and plug some of the thousands of old oil-and-gas wells that dot the province – like the one that caused a massive blast in Wheatley, Ont., two years ago.

Natural Resources Minister Graydon Smith made the announcement on Friday in Blenheim, Ont., about 100 kilometres east of Windsor and 50 kilometres away from Wheatley. It marks a major shift for the government, which had spent the past two years pledging little in the way of concrete changes to address what experts warn is a looming problem for similar communities elsewhere.

Mr. Smith acknowledged the new money, announced two years to the day since the gas leak that later caused the shocking explosion in the small Southwestern Ontario town, was only the beginning.

“This investment represents the first step in our government’s action plan to address the challenges and risks old oil and gas wells pose to communities across Ontario,” he said in a press release.

On June 2, 2021, a mix of deadly hydrogen sulfide and methane started leaking in the basement of a defunct pub in Wheatley, via what was later deemed an old water well. On Aug. 26, that gas – believed to be flowing from one of several nearby abandoned oil-and-gas wells – ignited, destroying two buildings, injuring 20 people and leaving the centre of the community a cordoned-off disaster site.

A Globe and Mail investigation into the blast and its aftermath revealed that local officials in Chatham-Kent, the municipality that includes Wheatley, repeatedly pleaded unsuccessfully with the province for more aid and specialized expertise after the dangerous gas leak was detected but were told provincial officials could only provide “commentary.”

Many have raised alarms over the dangers posed by thousands of abandoned and potentially leaking oil-and-gas wells in Ontario. Some are more than a century old and records on their whereabouts are patchy. A Globe analysis showed 26,674 oil and gas wells on record in Ontario, with more than half abandoned, which means they should have been plugged and are no longer in use. Of these, The Globe identified 7,424 potential orphan sites, where there is no record of an operator or an operator filed for insolvency or may no longer exist.

While Friday’s announcement was silent on any changes to the way Ontario largely leaves the problem of orphan oil and gas wells in the hands of sometimes unsuspecting property owners and local municipalities, the government is pledging to double its Abandoned Works Program, which provides funding for the capping of problem wells.

The government currently spends between $1-million and $3-million a year, plugging about 20 wells annually. The government says it will ramp this up to $6-million per year over three years. If so, that could bring it in line with recommendations of a 2005 internal government report that warned of the dangers of old oil and gas wells and said Ontario should be plugging 40 to 50 of them each year.

Ontario will also offer municipalities $7.5-million over three years to “reduce risk and enhance emergency preparedness” and it will top up the money it has already provided to Chatham-Kent with another $2.5-million. Including the costs of the consultant hired to investigation the blast and support for residents and businesses who had to leave the area, Ontario says it has now spent $25-million on the Wheatley explosion.

Municipal leaders in Chatham-Kent said last year they still needed even more money to cover their costs of the disaster. In a statement included with the government’s announcement on Friday, Mayor Darrin Canniff thanked the province for its aid but also for its “commitment to reviewing and addressing the difficulties municipalities are grappling with due to the challenges posed by legacy oil and gas wells” and its “recognition of the need to provide further assistance.”

Mr. Smith had said previously that he planned to consult affected municipalities and other experts as the government develops an oil and gas well plan, and he repeated that commitment on Friday.

Last fall, he met with Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) and Chatham-Kent Fire Chief Chris Case, who oversaw his municipality’s response to the Wheatley explosion and gas leak and, according to documents obtained via freedom of information legislation, repeatedly asked for provincial assistance while warning that the danger posed by the gas leak was beyond his department’s expertise.

In a statement distributed with the government’s announcement, OAFC president Rob Grimwood, deputy fire chief in Mississauga, thanked the minister for what he called an “important first step” and said the group looks forward to working with the government on the issue.

The fire chiefs had urged Mr. Smith to ensure that smaller fire departments, which often rely on volunteers, have gas detectors and other specialized equipment – or that the province set up a dedicated expert team to respond to similar incidents across Ontario.

They also raised the issue of Ontario’s legal regime, which can leave property owners with massive cleanup costs after discovering an undocumented leaking well – something critics warn is a disincentive to reporting suspected problems. The Abandoned Works Program provides funding for potentially dangerous wells, but only based on certain criteria.

This article was first reported by The Globe and Mail