Politicians, industry disappointed with no funding for oil well cleanup in budget

Disappointment was the word of the day for those who had pushed for federal funding to help clean up the backlog of thousands of out of service oil wells that dot the Prairies.

CALGARY — Disappointment was the word of the day for those who had pushed for federal funding to help clean up the backlog of thousands of out of service oil wells that dot the Prairies.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity to put people back to work and fix a problem,” said Greg Clark, leader of the Alberta party.

Clark has been asking for funding to clean up the roughly 700 orphaned wells in Alberta, where the company that owns the well can’t be found or has gone bankrupt.

“It would be instant job creation, instant economic stimulus, and we get to clean up an environmental mess,” he said.

Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan had asked for $156 million from the federal government to accelerate the cleanup of wells — a job the companies themselves are responsible for — but was left empty-handed in Ottawa’s budget statement Tuesday.

Commenting in Regina after the budget was released, Wall described the lack of funding as a disappointment because the proposed program, while imperfect, would have provided jobs for unemployed energy workers.

“This would be a direct help to the energy sector, put energy workers back to work in our province and it looks like they’re not going to fund that so that’s a disappointment,” said Wall.

Mark Salkeld, head of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, had asked for $500 million from the federal government for a program similar to what Wall had proposed so companies would move faster to clean up the roughly 77,500 inactive wells in Alberta.

He said he was happy to see action on employment insurance in the budget, but that creating jobs for his members would be better.

“Nobody and no country wants their people on welfare, so putting people back to work along the lines of well decommissioning is the better solution,” said Salkeld.

“We’re definitely an industry that is very loath to ask for money but it’s desperate times, we’ve got a lot of member companies that are suffering right now,” said Salkeld.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also had been looking for funding of oil well cleanup in the budget, but was pleased to see assistance on EI extensions and infrastructure investments.

The premier’s spokeswoman, Cheryl Oates, said the NDP’s stance is that the polluter should pay to reclaim wells, but sees it differently when it comes to orphaned wells where there is no polluter left to pay.

“If the federal government is interested in helping clean up the environment and put people back to work by funding the cleanup of those wells, we would welcome that,” Oates said in an email.

Saskatchewan’s NDP party had also come out against government funding the cleanup of a mess companies are responsible for, saying there are more important infrastructure projects to be done.

Brad Herald, chairman of the Orphan Well Association, said his organization is fairly ambivalent on government funding and has already accelerated its work thanks to a doubling of its industry levy last year and cheaper labour costs.

He said the association didn’t ask for the $30 million the Alberta government gave it in 2009 as a stimulus measure during the last downturn, but when asked by the government at the time if it could put the money to use it said yes.

“It said, could you spend it quickly, get it out to contractors, get people back to work, and the answer was yes,” said Herald.

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