Ontario is facing a problem – the past. Orphan wells, relics of Ontario’s claim as the first North American commercial drilling site, are contaminating the land and endangering public health. Orphan wells can leak methane (CH4), a powerful greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a deadly gas responsible for many workplace safety incidents.
Landowners in the proximity of some wells have stated they cannot open windows for fresh air and have placed monitors on their porches to monitor gas levels. Wheatley, a town in rural western Ontario, was the site of a 2021 explosion due to gas leakage from an unmarked well under the town.
Of almost 27,000 documented Ontario wells, about half are closed and plugged. Unlike in the Western provinces, there is no official definition of an “orphan well", no documentation of H2S content, and no plugging authority responsible for addressing the issue. The Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry (MNRF) estimates around 7,500 orphan wells in the province.
Two factors block progress:
The Abandoned Works Program, run by MNRF plugs “high impact” wells drilled before 1963, but with annual funding of $1M to $3M, only 380 wells have been plugged since 2005.
In contrast, provinces in Western Canada rely on royalties collected from oil and gas production to fund plugging of orphan wells. The Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Orphan Fund plans to plug 130 orphan wells next year. Alberta’s Orphan Well Association decommissioned 1,179 wells for about $68M in FY 2020-2021. The British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission gets $15M annually from the industry, and worked on 515 sites in 2020-2021, spending about $45M.
In Norfolk County, landowners with orphan wells on their property have noted that MNRF plugging of nearby wells seems to create higher levels of leakage and discharge as pressure builds with less avenues to escape, with readings of H2S as high as 300 ppm (H2S exposure thresholds below).
Ontario is seeking federal funding but has not received responses to proposals submitted in early 2021. Renewed local drilling and extraction could provide an answer. Reducing subsurface pressure by drilling new wells would decrease leakage from legacy wells, increase royalties to fund further plugging, and provide clean domestically produced energy.