Oil and natural gas activity has an impact on the land - seismic operations, access roads, wells, pipelines and facilities all contribute to industry's footprint in a region. Our challenge is to reduce the size and duration of our footprint in order to maintain the biodiversity and to support the function of natural ecosystems.
At the project planning stage, companies look for opportunities to avoid sensitive habitats, minimize the surface area needed and work with other users to reduce land footprint. This includes locating roads in such a manner that they can be shared by multiple operators. In addition, the use of multi-well pads in unconventional and in situ drilling operations greatly reduces surface footprint relative to individual well sites. Through project closure, companies strive to achieve timely reclamation and restoration.
Throughout a project, oil and natural gas companies work with numerous stakeholders, including Indigenous peoples, local communities, governments and landowners, to understand and address concerns about the project and its potential impact on the community, the land and biodiversity.
Monitoring and applied research
Canada's oil and natural gas industry demonstrates continuous improvement in environmental performance by fully understanding the extent of our impact on surface land values through monitoring, and to invest in technologies and best practices to reduce those impacts. Operators in Canada support sound scientific data collection and are collaborating with each other, with government, communities and scientists to achieve this objective.
Today, the leading source of information for industry on species health is the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program (JOSM). While this program is unique to the Athabasca region, the Alberta government is moving to establish monitoring across the province. The information we have today is limited to the lower Athabasca region, so we continue to work with governments in all our operating areas to enhance species monitoring and understanding.
In addition, industry provides financial support to many research funds to enable continual improvement in applied research on technologies and practices to improve environmental performance for land and biodiversity. Examples include:
- Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA)
- Foothills Research Institute
- Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada
Abandonment and reclamation
Once an oil or natural gas well is no longer productive, regulations require the operator to abandon the well and reclaim the site.
- Contouring and erosion control: All disturbed surface areas including the well pad, road areas and pipeline flows must be re-contoured to blend with the original landform. Adequate erosion control will provide for site stability and generally is achieved by successful revegetation.
- Re-vegetation: The establishment of a self-sustaining native plant community is a benchmark of reclamation success, including the control of invasive plant species and noxious weeds.
- Detailed site assessment: Following reclamation, the landscape is evaluated to ensure no erosion or drainage issues, topsoil quality and quantity is confirmed, and the health of vegetation (i.e., plant density, height, productivity, diversity, etc.) is assessed.
Regulators must be satisfied that all requirements are met before the site is certified as reclaimed/restored. Regulators audit a certain percentage of sites that receive reclamation certificates to ensure reclamation and vegetation establishment. Industry and regulators want to ensure that abandonment and reclamation liabilities are estimated appropriately and that adequate funding is in place to reclaim oil and gas sites at the end of their life.
Managing orphan wells
Liability management programs associated with abandonment are designed to protect the public from significant environmental issues and costs associated with oil and natural gas sites.
Abandoned, inactive and suspended wells have an identifiable owner, the licensee, and are financially managed by the licensee through to end-of-life activities. In Alberta, to protect against licensees whose businesses failed and are unable to cover the costs for abandonment and reclamation, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) collects an annual levy (the Orphan Well Levy) from all active oil and natural gas producers and remits these funds to the Orphan Well Association (OWA). The Orphan Well Levy is 100 per cent funded by industry. The OWA, on behalf of industry, conducts testing to determine the work needed to abandon the well safely, and then oversees performance of this task.