Whose Responsibility is it?

By Nick Dunn

Many landowners in Alberta are facing challenges with abandoned oil leases that no one seems to know whose responsibility they are. What once put dollars in landowners’ pockets is now adding to their financial burden and potentially placing our environment at risk. According to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the last decade of oil production has left us with hundreds of thousands of wells throughout the province. Various energy maps within Alberta can be accessed through the AER website at Here are some of the many classifications throughout the well process of well drilling to know:

Active oil leases – do not pose a threat for financial burden as they are usually managed and upkept or have an entity claiming ownership and responsibility. Oil leases that have been properly reclaimed are also not a threat and set the example of provincial and landowner expectations. I give credit to the oil producing organizations that do have reclamation plans and implement those plans within their business strategy. Leaving the land in better condition than when they developed it so the land can go back to its original state, which in our area is dominantly cultivation but also in native pasture lands.  

Inactive oil leases – pose a threat to be a financial burden for the landowner and place our environment at risk. When an oil lease becomes inactive it goes through a suspension period which includes plugging and temporary lockouts. Once it has been deemed that it is no longer needed, it must go through the abandonment process that includes permanently sealing and taking the well out of service. Once the well has been properly closed it will then be reclaimed to its original state. According to the AER, licensees (oil and gas companies) will always be held accountable for what’s beneath the surface to help ensure that sites have been properly shut down to protect our environment. Well sites pose a risk to the environment by acting as an entry point to our resources below ground if not properly capped. Whether it’s for water or oil, well sites need to be properly managed to reduce possible contamination of our underground resources.

Orphan wells – can be in any state, whether it’s active, inactive, suspended, or even abandoned; and are the heart of the problem. Wells are classified as orphans when there is no responsible party to take care of the reclamation. Orphan wells are then the responsibility of the Orphan Wells Association (OWA) and are handled in a triage manner. The OWA is a nonprofit funded by an annual levy paid by industry based on a calculation of their share in liability. The pace of OWA seems to be behind the pace of orphaned wells being added to the list.  

If you are a landowner and are experiencing issues with orphaned wells, unfortunately it’s true, that the process involves reporting the issue and then relying on regulatory bodies to take appropriate action. The AER has a reporting page to get you added to the list. After that, it is in their hands. I believe we are experiencing issues with abandoned wells because there are not enough boots on the ground to enact enforcement.

Some other ways to bring attention to your orphan wells might include seeking legal advice regarding debt collection or reclamation, and contacting local MLAs and other elected officials to share concerns and experiences. This problem is common to Albertan producers and is only going to get worse if accountability isn’t enforced. Increasing public awareness can lead to greater pressure on regulatory bodies and collaboration with others can amplify your voice. Additionally, staying informed and documenting issues relating to orphan wells is crucial.

Nick Dunn is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.