The Legault government refuses to reveal information regarding the 62 oil and gas exploration wells that must be closed by the companies responsible, but at the expense of the State. Quebec, however, says the bill for taxpayers will not exceed $33 million and the work will be completed in four years. Meanwhile, the plan to clean up dozens of other abandoned wells is progressing very slowly as several leak fossil fuels.
The duty requested the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (MERN) to list 62 exploration wells, including several shale gas wells, which will have to be permanently closed after the end of oil and gas exploration in Quebec. The ministry refused to provide us with this information.
Following a request for access to information, it was finally possible to obtain a document, but strongly worded and presenting almost no information with few details. It contains the number of 14 wells and the name of the company “responsible” for each of them, including five wells for shale gas and eight for oil exploration. One of the companies mentioned ceased to exist, another left Quebec and a third filed a lawsuit last year against the government over the stoppage of its oil project in Gaspé, near a residential neighborhood.
The list sent to Have to includes only a “projected cost amount included in final well closure and site restoration plan” for five of the wells. The document does not provide additional details for these shale gas exploration wells, which are expected to be monitored after closure by the Quebec government in the coming years.
A member of the Scientific Collective on the issue of shale gas and energy issues in Quebec, Marc Brullemans regrets the lack of transparency of the government, which has promised to finance 75% of the costs of closing these wells. “There are no costs, we don’t know the nature of the work and we don’t know by whom the work will be done. However, for the 62 wells, a list of upcoming operations and a schedule would be required. This information must be made public, to show transparency about the progress of the works”, he argues.
In the office of Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Jonatan Julien, however, we want to reassure him. The “total cost of definitively closing the 62 wells” is estimated at US$43 million, based on the “plans” presented by the companies responsible for the wells. This amount includes a portion of $25 million for “contingencies”. This means that the bill for Quebec taxpayers must not exceed $33 million, according to MERN. Including the compensation paid to the companies, we are talking about a bill of 100 million dollars.
The Cabinet of the Minister is also confident that all wells will be closed within 12 to 48 months, as foreseen in the Law, mainly to put an end to the exploration and production of hydrocarbons as well as the public funding of these activities. It is the companies that must carry out the work to close the wells, after having their plan approved by the ministry.
Marc Brullemans is less optimistic than the Legault administration. “I doubt that everything will be resolved within three to five years, as the government says. We don’t know what the closing work will allow us to discover, for example smoke. We run the risk of ending up with wells that are difficult to close. But whatever we do, we will have to continue inspections for decades to come. We will have to accept this inheritance. Each well will have to be taken care of. »
According to Brullemans, the 29 shale gas wells that were fractured are expected to require one-time work in the coming decades. He therefore estimates that the final bill, estimated at $33 million, is likely to be much higher than what MERN claims.
Is it prudent to permanently close exploration wells? Do companies want to propose another plan to the government? The Quebec Energy Association did not respond to our request for an interview. Utica Resources, which holds several exploration licenses, still has an active lobbying mandate to advocate for gas development. Questerre Energy also has an active mandate, in particular to challenge the ban on hydraulic fracturing.
In addition, the taxpayers’ bill – who also paid more than $120 million for oil exploration projects between 2012 and 2018 – will continue to rise if we take into account the abandoned exploration wells in Quebec. There are no less than 775 of these wells in the province, of which 534 have been located and 95 that require “work” to help stop gas or oil leaks.
However, although some wells have been leaking for several years, even several decades, the work of decontaminating and closing these wells takes time to materialize. Last year, the government had launched two tenders to find a company responsible for developing “a program for the definitive closure of inactive hydrocarbon wells” and for supervising the next works. On two occasions, the tender had to be canceled due to lack of tenderers.
Three other contests were launched in April. They concern a total of 21 abandoned wells. So far, only one contract has been signed. These are six wells located in Montérégie and Lanaudière, drilled between 1930 and 1956, for which MERN inspectors found “contamination”. One of the public notices includes the treatment of four old wells drilled in Gaspésie at the end of the 19and century and leaking oil. The region has several others, according to MERN inspection reports.
How much will work for the 95 abandoned problem wells? It is currently impossible to obtain an accurate estimate of decontamination costs. At the moment, the 30 wells for which MERN has entered a cost estimate lead to a total turnover of US$54 million, of which 16 wells are valued at more than US$1 million. However, this estimate concerns less than a third of the 95 wells officially under the responsibility of the State. All these wells were drilled by companies that have long since ceased to exist.
with Dave Noel