Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach demands answers to why Calmar homes put in danger and built over abandoned gas well

Stelmach demands answers to why homes built over abandoned gas well by Darcy Henton And Archie McLean, June 3, 2010, Edmonton Journal
Premier Ed Stelmach says he wants to know why no one was aware of an abandoned natural gas well in a Calmar residential subdivision before homes were constructed around it. “This issue goes back to the ’50s and I’m going to be paying particular attention to this,” Stelmach said Wednesday. “I want to know where the breakdown was.”

He wants to get a “full update” to determine who was responsible — whether it was the developer or the Energy Resources Conservation Board or some other party. Imperial Oil plans to remove five houses and bring a rig in to re-drill and seal an old gas well in Calmar, covered by this shed. Stelmach said he did not believe the situation was the result of a lack of financial resources. “It’s not what money is available to deal with the situation, it’s making sure that (the wells) are identified and we know where they are,” he said. “And that’s what I’m going to be paying attention to — what led to this and where was the breakdown.”

Opposition critics say the belated discovery of an abandoned natural gas well in the midst of the Calmar residential neighbourhood suggests regulations are needed to ensure municipal planners and developers check for oilpatch infrastructure before they approve developments. Currently, developers are required by law to check only for pipelines. “I would have to say that as we have more and more abandoned wells. it would make perfect sense to treat them the same way we treat abandoned pipelines,” Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said. “If we had a law like that, certainly citizens out in Calmar as well as Imperial Oil wouldn’t be going through what they are.”

The Journal revealed Wednesday that five new homes in a subdivision in Calmar, 50 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, will have to be removed in order for Imperial Oil to erect a drilling rig to permanently re-seal an abandoned well that was capped 50 years ago. The ERCB says the situation in Calmar is “unique,” despite the presence of thousands of abandoned wells in the province, and that municipalities have been contacting the oilpatch regulator for more than a decade to check for oilfield infrastructure. The well in the neighbourhood was one of several drilled by Texaco in Calmar in the 1950s. When the wells were closed and sealed in the 1960s, reference to them was removed from the land title. NDP leader Brian Mason doesn’t understand why the wells would be removed from the land title. “Why should some purchaser suddenly learn they have some significant encumbrance on their property. I don’t think ‘Buyer Beware’ should apply at all,” he said.

Imperial Oil, which purchased Texaco in 1989, said some of the wells were leaking small amounts of natural gas when they were discovered in 2008. Imperial Oil spokeswoman Laura Bishop said the company moved quickly to plug the leaks. “These wellheads are now located in secure and locked sheds. Prior to this work being completed, testing of the small sub-surface sweet gas leak by Imperial and the ERCB showed nothing to indicate health or safety risks to residents. Work to install the wellhead was done that same year, and there has been no gas leak since.” But residents said there could have been serious problems and they wonder how many other potentially dangerous abandoned wells may be buried in residential communities. Trevor Smith, whose Evergreen Crescent home next to the abandoned well will have to be removed, said he wrote to several Alberta cabinet ministers and Stelmach, calling for regulations to govern development around abandoned wells. “Last year, when I sent messages to all those ministers, I requested that someone create a bill to address these issues and create the necessary legislation to ensure this didn’t happen to anyone else,” Smith said. “I was essentially brushed off.”

Smith did receive a letter from then-Energy Minister Mel Knight, advising him there was a working group of three ministries “charting a course for regulatory change regarding abandoned well setbacks and municipal development.” But Alberta Energy spokesman Bob McManus said Wednesday that he didn’t know the status of that effort. ERCB spokesman Darin Barter said the oilpatch regulator couldn’t enforce a law that would require municipalities or developers to make checks before they develop land because its jurisdiction doesn’t extend beyond the oil and gas industry. “It would be very difficult for us to enforce a regulation on a town council,” he said. “It’s better to provide a call-before-you-dig service and that’s what we’re doing.” He said municipal officials have followed guidelines advising them to call the ERCB to check for wells before approving developments. [Emphasis added]

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