WHEREAS Alberta has experienced an extended period of economic challenge in the oil and gas industry which has resulted in many resource companies becoming insolvent, forced into receivership, or ultimately claiming bankruptcy; and
WHEREAS there are thousands of oil and gas wells across Alberta where regular lease maintenance is not being carried out as per the terms of private surface lease agreements, including wells transferred to the Orphan Well Association, companies in receivership or in bankruptcy proceedings, or companies currently still operating and producing product; and
WHEREAS there are no legislated timelines for oil and gas companies to reclaim inactive wells; and
WHEREAS there are currently approximately 90,000 inactive wells in Alberta; and
WHEREAS the Alberta Energy Regulator has been reluctant to suspend well licenses or limit access to these sites for companies that are in non-compliance surface leases terms related to weed control, contamination issues, fence maintenance, or non-payment of surface rentals; and
WHEREAS agricultural operators have been left to address the liabilities of many oil and gas wells that have been abandoned by bankrupt companies or companies that are unwilling or financially unable to maintain their sites; and
WHEREAS neglect of weed control on well sites has been a recent concern of municipalities and landowners across Alberta;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta advocate to the governments of Alberta and Canada to put in place appropriate legislation and standards to protect landowners from undue hardship as a result of oil and gas company neglect of weed control on well sites.
Ongoing depressed oil and natural gas prices have dramatically affected the industry, the provincial government, and the residents of Alberta. One of the unforeseen consequences to rural landowners has been the effects of unaddressed weed issues from oil and gas lease sites.
Several struggling oil and gas companies have opted to forego weed control measures on their lease sites on both private and Crown lands. This includes companies whose assets have been assigned to the Orphan Well Association, companies in receivership or bankruptcy proceedings, and companies that continue to operate and are choosing not to address their weed control obligations through their surface lease agreements.
This unfortunate symptom of an industry in peril has resulted in economic implications to cooperating landowners. In many cases, these neglected leases have resulted in weeds moving off the lease onto neighboring lands causing reduced crop yields and having landowners incur the cost, inconvenience, and liability of managing these weed issues themselves.
Efforts by landowners to contact operators of these facilities has proven to be frustrating. In some cases a contact person cannot be found, or if they are successful in contacting the company, many times the issues go unresolved.
The plant of primary concern is the Kochia weed (Kochia scoparia). This now common, non-native plant grows in wide range of soil types, is drought tolerant, and is becoming increasingly resistant to traditional herbicide treatments. This plant is of great concern to producers of annual cereal crops as it can substantially reduce crop yields and seed cleaning costs in affected fields. Kochia is not listed in the Alberta Weed Control Regulation, therefore municipalities are limited in their ability to address this issue through legislative processes.
Attempts at contacting the Orphan Well Association, the Alberta Energy Regulator, and the Alberta Surface Rights Board have not been successful in attenuating this situation.
RMA has no active resolutions directly related to this issue.
Under the Weed Control Act, the landowner or occupant are responsible for the control of noxious weeds, and the destruction of prohibited noxious weeds on their property. Enforcement of the Weed Control Act requires the weed inspector to issue a weed notice. Municipalities have the authority to serve and enforce a notice of non-compliance, which can contain directions on the method required for weed removal and timeline for compliance.
Enforcement of the notice allows an inspector, or other authorized person, to take the necessary actions required under the notice should the landowner or occupant fail to do so. A notice can be appealed to the municipality within the time specified on the notice, or 10 days, whichever is shorter.
The AER has the authority to ensure that companies clean up and close their energy sites so that they pose no threat to the public or the environment. While the AER has limited authority over weeds, it follows up on all complaints about weed management. If a weed issue is within the AER’s jurisdiction, and it is determined that the company is failing to meet their requirements under the Public Lands Act, a notice of noncompliance may be issued.
Sites in the inventory of the Orphan Well Association (OWA) are managed in accordance with the OWA’s policies, and the OWA does not control weeds on suspended or abandoned orphaned oil and gas sites. Given the unprecedented growth of orphaned oil and gas sites in Alberta in recent years, the OWA prioritizes available funds for closure activities – instead of weed management – to ensure that energy infrastructure is removed from the landscape as soon as possible.
The OWA addresses weed infestations on orphan well sites only after the well has been moved into its reclamation inventory, where weed management is required for reclamation success. The OWA will control weeds during reclamation, prior to applying for a reclamation certificate from the AER; as well, the OWA will control weeds prior to reclamation, but only if the OWA believes that failure to do so will significantly impact reclamation efforts.
Farmers can apply to the Surface Rights Board for compensation for adverse effects, which could include compensation for weed control, under the five-year lease review provisions of the Surface Rights Act (Section 27). Farmers can apply for compensation under section 30 of the Act for damage to any land that is offsite, which may include compensation for weed control or weed infestation. The board decides these matters based on the relevant evidence and arguments in each case.
For more information on how the board has decided weed control and weed infestation issues, farmers can view Surface Rights Board decisions at CanLII’s online law database at www.canlii.org.
The Farmer’s Advocate Office can help landowners file their paperwork with the Surface Rights Board, or help direct municipalities or landowners to the appropriate agency. The Farmers’ Advocate Office can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 310-FARM (3276).
RMA appreciates Alberta Energy’s response outlining the Weed Control Act and the responsibilities of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and Orphan Well Association (OWA) regarding weed management. However, due to the ongoing challenges oil and gas companies are facing, many have opted to forgo weed control measures on their lease sites on both private and Crown lands. This includes companies whose assets have been assigned to the OWA, companies in receivership or bankruptcy proceedings and companies that continue to operate. While municipalities have the authority under the Weed Control Act to serve and enforce a notice of non-compliance, many go unresolved from not being able to find a contact person or the company refuses to comply.
Weeds can have serious negative consequences when they spread to neighbouring lands as it can cause reduced crop yields. In most cases, landowners incur the cost, inconvenience and liability of managing these weed issues themselves. As stated in Alberta Energy’s response the AER has limited authority over weeds and the OWA only addresses weed infestations on orphan well sites after the well has been moved to its reclamation inventory.
RMA appreciates the Farmer’s Advocate Office’s work helping landowners file their paperwork to apply for compensation for adverse effects, which could include compensation for weed control, under the five-year lease review provisions of the Surface Rights Act (Section 27).
Natural Resources Canada has not provided a response to this resolution. RMA will update members and the status of this resolution when a response is received.
RMA assigns this resolution a status of Intent Not Met as the current legislation has no enforcement measures for weed management and the OWA and AER do not provide weed control on suspended or abandoned orphaned oil and gas sites. RMA will continue to advocate to the provincial and federal government for appropriate legislation and standards to protect landowners from undue hardship as a result of oil and gas company neglect of weed control on well sites.