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You may have been hearing a lot about “orphans” in the context of the oil and gas industry. But what are orphan sites, why do they matter and what are we doing about them?

Dotted throughout northeast B.C. are oil and gas industry sites – and some of them are orphan sites – unrestored wells, facilities, pipelines and associated areas that the Commission designates orphans. This designation happens when an oil and gas company is declared bankrupt, or cannot be located. As an orphan, site cleanup and restoration work can begin (or continue) and is organized by the Commission, and paid for out of the industry-funded Orphan Site Reclamation Fund.

Restoration requirements for an orphan site are the same for all sites – the well is plugged and capped, equipment is removed and plants and soils should be restored as close to their original state as possible. When this is done the Commission considers the site restored, but can always come back and complete any needed improvements.

Orphan sites are a growing concern for many across Canada. In B.C., the number of orphan sites has risen since 2015 (see chart below) after an Alberta court ruled that, in bankruptcy proceedings, a receiver can sell its valuable assets and walk away from the rest, leaving the provincial regulator responsible for the remaining, and potentially, lesser assets. This legal precedent, since overturned, combined with an economic downturn and aging infrastructure has contributed to the increase in orphans in recent years. This issue is occurring simultaneously across Canada.

Cumulative Orphan Inventory
Cumulative Orphan Inventory in B.C. - 2013 to Present

So what is B.C. doing about this increase in orphans? At the Commission we are working to:

  • Tighten conditions to ensure companies have adequate resources needed to ensure timely site cleanup.
  • Partner with First Nations on restoration work to develop ecologically and culturally appropriate reclamation plans.
  • Reach out to industry associations on best practices and timelines for cleanup.
  • Accelerate the rate in which orphan sites are cleaned up, paid for by a new industry levy.

These efforts require legislative and regulatory changes to the Oil and Gas Activities Act and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Act, compliance and enforcement initiatives to hold industry accountable, partnerships with Indigenous communities on restoration work, and more.

Orphan sites are a concern for us, for citizens and a challenge we are addressing head on. By making changes to help ensure companies clean up their sites, and by increasing the restoration rate, we believe all orphan sites in B.C. can be restored within a decade of orphan designation. This ensures that while energy development is taking place, we protect public safety and the environment for British Columbians for years to come.

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