In an environmental first for the western Canadian fossil fuel industry, British Columbia (BC) has set deadlines and public participation requirements for cleanups of depleted natural gas and oil wells.

The new rules kick in on wells when their annual time on production falls below 720 hours (30 days) for five years. Schedules are set to decommission exhausted wells, assess cleanup plans and restore their sites to natural condition.

Annual work plans and results reports are required. Notices of cleanup programs and invitations to respond must be circulated to landowners, local governments and native settlements.

All cleanup activity including interactions with communities must be documented in formal records filed with the BC Oil and Gas Commission (BCOGC). The information is to be made public.

Mandatory cleanup schedules vary depending on well ages and conditions. The tightest deadlines apply to “priority sites” deemed to be hazardous or community disruptions: two years to decommission, three years to assess, five years to restore.

The program will do double duty by creating a new arena for recruitment of aboriginal cooperation and employment with industry. Opportunities for training and certifying natives in reclamation trades are being made available at BC universities.

This month marks the start of the cleanup campaign, 10 weeks after a report by BC Auditor General Carol Bellringer described a growing backlog of discarded wells.

Commission records show that of 25,451 mostly gas wells drilled to date in BC, 40% are still active producers, 30% are inactive, 13% are “abandoned” or sealed up, and 17% are certified as restored.

The BCOGC predicts at least 10,000-11,000 currently dormant well sites will be cleaned up and restored to natural condition by 2036. Exemptions are limited to special cases, such as when a nonproducer is surrounded by active bores on multi-well pads.

A commission report observes that under the old regime of voluntary environmental action, “While many companies are actively restoring sites, the rate of restoration has not kept pace with development.”

So far, 98.6%  of BC wells still have solvent owners capable of doing cleanups. Only 1.4%, or 346 are orphans requiring collective industry and government care after being deserted by firms that folded or went broke.

The BC cleanup backlog is an emerging version of a much larger inventory of problem sites in the older and bigger Alberta industry, where the current counts are nearly 90,000 inactive wells and 3,127 orphans.

BC Energy Minister Michelle Mungall said her province’s mandatory cleanup campaign comes in response to widespread public concerns. The new regime also includes a “comprehensive liability management plan” that as of April increased BC cleanup fund levies on the industry to enforce the “polluter-pay” principle by ensuring the provincial government and taxpayers are not saddled with deserted orphan wells.