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A 30-year oil mess - gone at last

Farmer to get land back after group reclaims abandoned well

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010 06:00 am

Farmer Terry Bokenfohr watches as crews with the Orphan Well Association clean up an abandoned oil well on his property Monday. The cleanup began last week and is expected to take about a year. The well, established in 1955, was shut off in 1981 but was left unreclaimed when its owner went bankrupt.
Farmer Terry Bokenfohr watches as crews with the Orphan Well Association clean up an abandoned oil well on his property Monday. The cleanup began last week and is expected to take about a year. The well, established in 1955, was shut off in 1981 but was left unreclaimed when its owner went bankrupt.
KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette

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Terry Bokenfohr was just two years old when an oil company drilled a well on his farm.

Now, 55 years later, that well is finally going away.

Contractors with the Orphan Well Association started reclaiming the abandoned well on the Bokenfohr farm about three kilometres west of the Highwaywy. 37 overpass. The well has sat unused and unreclaimed there for about 30 years, slowly leaching salt and contaminants into the surrounding soil.

It’s been a long wait, Bokenfohr says, as he watches a backhoe dig through the contaminated dirt, but he’s learned to live with it. “That’s why we’re relieved that work has begun on the site,” he says. “It’s not something we want to push down to another generation.”

This old well

The well itself was drilled by a Denver, Colo.orado-based company called Sharples in 1955, says Bokenfohr. There were few restrictions on where you could drill at the time, he says, so the company plunked their well right in the middle of one of their fields.

The well was sold to Legal Oil & Gas Ltd. in the 1960s, he says, who which pumped oil from it until about 1981. “They weren’t a company that followed good oil and gas practices,” he says. T: they had leaky tanks, oil spills, and a flare pit full of sludge. (A flare pit is a now-outlawed structure that uses a hole in the ground to catch liquid fuel from a horizontal flare stack.)

The company gave up on the well in the 1980s, leaving Bokenfohr with about five acres of contaminated land. When the province ordered the company to clean up the site in the 1990s, they did an exceptionally bad job of it.

“I came out one day and found they were removing pipeline that was in the ground with a picker truck,” Bokenfohr says. “All they were doing was tying onto the line and reefing them out of the ground, and they were still loaded with oil.” The province ordered them to stop, and the company went bankrupt. The well was now an orphan — an installation without a party to take care of it.

Taking care of orphans

The province and the oil industry created the Orphan Well Association in the mid-1990s to clean up these orphaned sites, says David Pryce, the group’s chair and vice-president of operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Funded by an industry levy, its job is to close and rehabilitate about 700 abandoned oil and gas sites in Alberta. They’ve done about $136 million of worth of work so far, he says, and have about $100 million more to go.

The Bokenfohr well is one of 12 Legal Oil and Gas sites under the association’s care, Pryce says. Studies suggest the land is substantially contaminated, with a plume of salt and hydrocarbons seeping into the groundwater. “We’re chasing the underground contamination.”

Crews hope to excavate about half the site this year, Pryce says, and aim to have it farmable by next year. The rest of the site willould be finished in years to come.

The oil industry doesn’t want any more orphan sites on its hands, Pryce says, and has worked with the province to prevent them. Since 2002, all oil companies have been required to regularly report their finances to the province. If it looks like they’re going out of business, they must give the province a deposit to cover the cost of reclaiming their wells. The province has not had any new orphan wells pop up since the new policy kicked in.

Farmers should keep a close eye on oil companies in their fields to make sure they don’t get stuck with an orphan, Bokenfohr says. Any concerns should be reported to the Energy Resources Conservation Board.

Bokenfohr says he plans to farm this reclaimed land as soon as it’s ready. “It will kind of be a relief to have it back to the way it was when by grandfather farmed it.”


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