Canada orders energy companies to clean up their old oil wells — US should too

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

As more regions make the switch to clean energy sources, “dirty” energy companies such as oil refineries are finding themselves falling into bankruptcy. As of late, the trend for economically faltering energy companies has been to use remaining funds to pay back creditors, then slip away quietly — leaving old oil and gas wells for someone else to worry about.

The Canadian Supreme Court has now put an end to this sneaky behavior: As of Feb. 1, energy companies will be responsible for fully cleaning their operation sites before any payments to creditors may be made. This decision overturns the 2016 Redwater Energy Ruling in lower Canadian courts, in which it was decided that a company’s first priority should be paying off debts.

Energy companies should first be concerned with repayment of debts. However, the real debts are not those to banks, but those to the environment and society, which suffer for the sake of the energy company’s profit.

Abandoned oil and gas wells pose major health concerns to the surrounding environment, especially humans who risk contracting a number of cancers from exposure to standing toxins.

According to an investigation by CBC, Alberta alone currently has 3,127 “orphan wells” — abandoned oil and gas wells in need of plugging or other remediation efforts. While the specifics of who is responsible for the existing orphan wells remain up for debate, the new concept of “polluter pays” will prevent further abandonments.

It is often unclear what entity should fund cleanup efforts in the event that a refinery shuts down, and the automatic assumption in the United States is that taxpayers will be forced to shoulder the burden. Canada, however, has made the rational decision to place the onus on those that are directly responsible for the environmental degradation.

According to Alberta Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd, the new protocol has already had a positive impact on the environment in Alberta. Nearly 2,400 previously orphaned wells have been cleaned or are currently undergoing a remediation process. The trend is projected to continue, bringing positive changes to both the environment and citizens of Canada.

A large percentage of the remediated lands are slated to be used for agriculture, bringing jobs and revenue to the area. The switch from oil refineries to farmland is a major win for the environment as well: Canada can expect to see a reduction of smog and heavy metals in the soils, as well as a return of native flora and fauna as their habitats become healthy and available once more.

Holding these energy companies accountable for the destruction their operations cause will only serve to benefit the nation as a whole. The polluter pays concept ensures wells are not left to further pollute the environment after the refinery shuts down, and also deters the shifty behavior previously seen from financially failing companies.

As the world continues to move toward environmentally-conscious practices, I hope that more countries will adopt policies like this. Here in the United States, belly-up energy companies are not required to make any type of remediation attempts and may pay off their investors, leaving uncapped wells to degrade the surrounding land. With a reported 1.2 million orphan wells across the country according to the Environmental Protection Agency, our own nation would benefit from taking action to hold polluters accountable.

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