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Between gaps in information, the steady corrosion of well plugs and the lack of risk monitoring, Ontario is facing a crisis

At the back of Tom Edwards’s acreage in Norfolk County, in southwestern Ontario, a rotten egg-like stench of hydrogen sulphide rises from the ground, so gaseous, so strong, it brings tears to the eyes.

Keep walking towards the stink, and the land drops off – a sudden and dramatic break where the grassy field has crumbled into the creek below.

At the bottom is an old gas well, drilled in 1957 by Bova Gas and Development Co. Ltd. When the company folded, the well was left unplugged.

The smell and toxic, bubbling water at the back of Mr. Edwards’s yard is no isolated event in this quiet part of rural Ontario, where rolling farms and bubbling creeks were – 100 years ago – the beating heart of Canada’s oil and gas industry.

Around here, it’s not unusual for residents to have monitors on their porches to detect hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and other toxic gases. Windows are often closed even in the heat of summer, lest the wind change direction and gas gets in.

The 52-acre property of Tom Edwards, in Ontario’s Norfolk County, has a sinkhole where a gas well once stood, emitting noxious gases and damaging trees in the area.

The smell is bad, but residents also worry about the danger.

Last August in downtown Wheatley, a town about 200 kilometres to the west, a building exploded at the site of an old gas well following three evacuations in three months, all triggered by H2S and methane leaks.

Almost a year later, an investigation into the exact cause of the blast that injured about 20 people still isn’t complete, but the explosion has exposed a problem in Ontario that many residents and local governments fear is not being taken seriously by the province – old leaking wells.

Ontario was the first place in North America where oil was commercially drilled. Many of the wells were plugged more than five decades ago, when there were lesser environmental and safety standards. The materials used to plug them – in some cases, little more than logs and lead – have corroded over time, allowing dangerous gases to migrate to the surface or into aquifers.

There are 26,674 oil and gas wells on record in Ontario, the bulk of which are in the southwest. More than half have been abandoned, which means they have been plugged and are no longer in use. However, the status of 6,210 wells is unknown, according to a Globe and Mail analysis. Experts estimate another 3,000 wells are scattered about, but their exact location is a mystery.

Abandoned wells

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Wells within 75 metres of a structure

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chen wang and john sopinski/the globe and mail,

Source:Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

Abandoned wells

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Only wells with location information and accuracy higher

than 50 metres are included.

chen wang and john sopinski/the globe and mail,

Source:Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

Abandoned wells

Wells within 75 metres of a structure

ONT.

QUE.

ONT.

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Georgian

Bay

Georgian

Bay

Detail

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Lake Huron

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Only wells with location information and accuracy higher than 50 metres are included.

chen wang and john sopinski/the globe and mail, Source:Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

Also unknown is the exact number of orphan wells. Orphan wells have no owner, or have an owner that can’t afford to pay to properly decommission the site. The province has no statutory definition of what constitutes an orphan well, nor is there any organization that manages the plugging and reclamation of these wells, such as Alberta’s Orphan Well Association.

Unlike in Western provinces, Ontario’s database of oil and gas wells doesn’t document the H2S content of a well, either, so there is less information about which ones pose the greatest risks. There’s also scant monitoring of abandoned wells compared to Western provinces – a problem, seeing as the industry has only a tiny footprint left in Ontario, and the people and companies who drilled the wells are, in many cases, long gone. On top of that, Ontario’s oil and gas legislation puts the onus on landowners to plug any wells they find on their property – no matter who drilled it, or how long ago and how much the cost.

Between the gaps in information, the steady corrosion of well plugs and the lack of risk monitoring, Ontario is facing a crisis. Not only do the wells pose a threat to the environment and the health of residents, experts say another Wheatley is all-but guaranteed in the province, with potentially fatal results.

Provincial engineers and other staff have sounded alarm bells to successive Ontario governments, according to internal documents provided to The Globe and Mail, warning that the problem would worsen without immediate government intervention. Yet little has been done.

Now, some experts contend a royal commission or independent inquiry is needed to understand the true scale of the danger and determine Ontario’s next steps to protect communities. The province is also facing increasing calls to dedicate more funding toward assessing and plugging wells.

In the meantime, wells continue to leak. And the risk to Ontarians grows.


Mr. Edwards’s land has kept slipping into the creek around the abandoned well on his property in Norfolk County, which he bought in 2020.
A pontoon collects data from Mr. Edwards’s creek this past February, when researchers from McGill University visited Norfolk County to measure gas levels.
Mr. Edwards has been fighting for provincial funding to clean up the old well, so far without success.

While Western Canada is home to the lion’s share of Canada’s modern oil and gas sector, Ontario is where the industry began. The first oil well drilled in North America was in Ontario, at the aptly named Oil Springs, in 1858.

Natural gas production started in the province in the early 1900s, but by 2020 output had dwindled to around 6.9 million cubic feet per day – less than 0.1 per cent of Canada’s total.

Crude from Ontario’s first commercial field still flows today, though production has shrunk from those first gushers to a dribble, down to just 500 barrels a day. That’s less than 0.1 per cent of total Canadian oil production.

The age of the industry, however, presents a major problem – one provincial governments have been warned about for many years.

A 2004 internal government document, prepared by Ministry of Natural Resources officials during the first term of Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, issued a blunt warning: Lax regulation of the oil and gas industry was exposing Ontarians “to great health and environmental risks associated with contaminated drinking water wells and aquifers, and other hazards.”

The 83-page report was shared with The Globe by the Professional Engineers Government of Ontario (PEGO), a bargaining unit that represents about 550 engineers in the public service. It warned that Ontario’s fragmented approach to regulating the industry resulted in “serious gaps in funding, field inspection, enforcement and resource stewardship creating serious issues.” And it listed 14 incidents dating back to 1954 to support its case, including gas releases in Jarvis, Leamington, Six Nations and Vienna, and well blowouts in Enniskillen, Petrolia and Sarnia.

Abandoned oil wells and shacks around the Oil Springs area in 2005.Craig Glover/The Globe and Mail

Back in the 1960s, Ontario allocated $1-million a year to plug wells that posed immediate risks to public and environmental safety. But cutbacks over the years “resulted in the total elimination of such allocation by the early 1990s,” the report says. And by 1997, the province’s Petroleum Resources Centre was left with the equivalent of 11 full-time staff, and just one field inspector and one enforcement officer.

The government report recommended ramping up decommissioning efforts to complete 40 to 50 wells a year, saying that’s about how many “create an immediate hazard” such as potential contamination of drinking water aquifers.

Recommendations were also made for tougher rules, more staff and beefed-up powers for inspectors, and reviving a government-funded program to decommission problem wells on private lands (which had been cancelled in the 1990s). The report warned that existing regulations and a lax security deposit system for cleanup costs encouraged operators to abandon sites and transfer the problem to taxpayers.

While most of the recommendations were never acted on, in 2005, the ministry created what it calls the Abandoned Works Program. The fund provides between $1-million and $3-million a year to plug orphaned oil and gas wells that could have the greatest impact on public and environmental safety. It plugs about 20 wells annually – about half the number recommended in 2004.

The Ontario government studied the issue again more than a decade later, setting up a multiministry team in 2017 to examine subsurface gas migration, and what it could mean for the province. A confidential April, 2019, directors briefing for the group, obtained by The Globe, noted there are “possibly thousands of additional undocumented wells in Southern Ontario.” It added that the age of wells could impact public safety and the viability of groundwater as a drinking water source, and have “socio-economic and governance implications” such as impacts to property values and municipal emergency responses. Yet, the team’s work did not lead to a widespread plan to deal with abandoned wells.

Scott Grant, a volunteer safety advocate with PEGO, says members have spent the past few years raising concerns about oil and gas wells with Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) managers and numerous ministers. They have repeatedly flagged increasing risks to public safety from improperly abandoned wells and the migration of explosive and toxic gases around southwestern Ontario.

For Mr. Grant, the Wheatley blast shows the government’s efforts to address the issue remain severely inadequate. And, he says, it continues to ignore its own engineering expertise. He said the province should have a team of experts to deal with situations like the H2S and methane leaks that preceded the Wheatley explosion and pro-actively seek out and cap problem wells before a disaster.

“When the chips were down they all ran for the hills, basically,” Mr. Grant said of the province. “Because they didn’t really know what they were doing. And they left it up to the poor fire department to deal with it.”

A spokesman for the ministry, Hayden Kenez, said the MNRF is developing a strategy related to the risks associated with legacy wells. But he would not comment on the details, saying the process is in the early stages. Callum Elder, a spokesman for newly appointed minister Graydon Smith, declined to make him available for an interview about the strategy or for this story.


Aug. 26, 2021, was a day of disaster for Wheatley, Ont., when a gas explosion destroyed a downtown pub, shown in a bystander’s video shared with CTV. It's suspected H2S and methane were leaking from a nearby old well.
When The Globe and Mail revisited the scene this past July, the pub had been razed and crisscrossed by blue piping from remediation of other old wells in the area.

The differences in regulations, records and processes between Western Canada’s oil sector and Ontario’s legacy one are stark.

Take orphan wells, for example, of which Ontario has no statutory definition. The Ontario Petroleum Institute (OPI), a non-profit industry association that represents those in the oil and gas sector, says the criteria used to identify orphan wells in the province is subjective and “therefore open to interpretation.” A Globe analysis of the MNRF’s Petroleum Well database found 7,424 potential orphan wells in the province. That includes 1,867 wells where there is no record of the operator, and 4,921 that still have an operator listed in the database but their well status is unknown (which means the operator likely no longer exists). There are 636 wells for which their owners were found to have filed for insolvency, The Globe’s research shows.

Of all the wells in Ontario, the OPI says 4,400 have some level of risk to landowners or public health and safety because they encounter some type of water or hydrocarbon. (The OPI declined to explain how it did its analysis and The Globe could not verify its data.)

Owing to the age of the industry, Ontario’s data are far less comprehensive than fossil-fuel sectors in Western Canada, too. Its well database is a patchwork of records from different periods, with gaps that still need field inspections to fill in or verify.

Wells with an “unknown” status are just one example. They either don’t have records or those that do contain little information – sometimes because the operating company ceased to exist and reporting stopped, or because the wells were drilled prior to licensing requirements. Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia don’t have “unknown” as a well status, which shows the unique legacy liability of Ontario’s energy industry.

Operators or licensees are responsible for risk reporting in Western provinces, but the fact so many wells in Ontario do not have an active operator makes risk assessments difficult.

The Western provinces also have millions of dollars collected from the oil and gas industry to plug orphaned wells and address leaks and problems that may surface over the years or decades. In Saskatchewan, the industry-funded Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Orphan Fund plugs between 75 and 150 orphan wells each year for a cost of $5-million to $8-million.

Across the border in Alberta, the Orphan Well Association is funded by industry as well, though it has also received $535-million in federal and provincial loans. The OWA has decommissioned about 6,270 wells since it began operations in 2002. In the 2021-22 financial year, it decommissioned 1,179 wells for a cost of $67.7-million.

An abandoned well in High River, Alta., is seen in 2020 before its decommissioning by the province’s Orphan Well Association.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

In British Columbia, a $15-million annual levy on industry funds the BC Oil and Gas Commission, an arm of the provincial government set up in 2004. It spent $45-million working on 515 sites in 2020-21.

Ontario’s Abandoned Works Program is administered by the MNRF. Started in 2005, the ministry has spent about $23-million on the program to plug about 380 wells. Landowners must apply to the program, which covers oil or gas wells drilled before 1963 that are visible from the surface and have no current operator.

Additionally, most land in Canada has two kinds of rights: rights that determine who owns the surface of a property, called surface rights, and mineral rights, which govern who has the right to mine the minerals underground. In most Canadian provinces, mineral rights are owned by the provincial government.

In Ontario, under the Ontario Oil, Gas and Salt Resources Act, landowners can own rights to the minerals found under the surface of their property, including oil and gas. Where that’s the case, the landowner is legally responsible for plugging and cleaning up wells on their property, even if they were drilled 150 years ago by a defunct producer.

That creates problems, says Ryan Brown, the director of public works at the municipality of Chatham-Kent, which includes Wheatley. Numerous farmers have old gas wells in their fields, Mr. Brown said, but “there’s no incentive for them to report it.” Because there’s a good chance the province will slap a farmer with an order to clean up something they never put there in the first place, he said, it becomes a case of “just let sleeping dogs lie. And that’s not the best safety for the community.”

Being lumped with a clean-up bill that will likely run into tens of thousands of dollars for a pre-existing problem is what happened to Mr. Edwards back in Norfolk County, whose land is slipping into a creek around an old gas well.

A public complaint first brought the well to the attention of the Ministry of Environment and MNRF in 2018, before Mr. Edwards owned the 52-acre plot of land. Numerous inspections under Ontario’s Oil, Gas and Salt Resources Act found fluids flowing from the well into the creek. At times, H2S hit 20 parts per million by volume, which exceeds the maximum short-term exposure limit allowed under Ontario occupational health and safety laws. The previous owner, Golden Maple Ginseng Farms, was ordered to get the well plugged. But it never did, despite numerous meetings with government officials.

Tom Edwards at the door of one of the buildings on his property. The leaking well is at the tree line, about 350 metres from his home.

Mr. Edwards bought the property in 2020. Records show he had flagged the issue with the MNRF, but was issued a well clean-up order on Dec. 10, 2021, following more inspections. The presence of H2S, the flow of well fluids into the creek and resulting erosion would only get worse, and posed a hazard to the environment and public, concluded MNRF inspector Richard Ostrowski.

Mr. Edwards has been fighting to access provincial funds to clean it up through Ontario’s Abandoned Works Program, to no avail. He contends, with the backing of reports from experts, that the problem started after MNRF and the Ministry of Environment plugged a relief well in March, 2015, on 10th Concession Road near Silver Hill – not far from Mr. Edwards’s place. The relief well had been drilled to vent H2S gases and relieve upstream groundwater pressure causing discharge in lowland areas such as Big Creek.

According to a 2020 report about leaking wells in Norfolk County – prepared for residents and former local MPP Toby Barrett by Richard Jackson, an adjunct professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Waterloo – a gas well on a nearby property began to discharge sulphur water into Big Creek and its tributaries one month after the relief well was drilled. A spring developed on another property about three kilometres north. Other wells began to discharge too, with one recording H2S readings as high as 300 ppm.

The report describes it as a “whack-a-mole” situation.

“Plugging of the relief well in 2015 likely caused pressure buildup in the sulphur-water aquifer resulting in discharge through nearby poorly plugged gas wells,” the report concluded.

The MNRF disagrees. It told The Globe in a e-mail that the belief that plugging the relief well caused any of the sulphur water flows in the area “is not a proven fact.” It maintains that additional data are required before the behaviour of the aquifer system can be fully understood.

Mr. Edwards is fighting the clean-up order, and on Sept. 6, will begin a compliance appeal hearing through the MNRF Petroleum Operations Centre in London, Ont., to continue his battle with the province.

“I’m hoping that they’re going to just see the light here and realize that the best thing for them to do is just fix this well under the [Abandoned Works] program.”


Hydrogen sulphide and methane are leaking from the ground on the property of John and Rochelle Spanjers in Norfolk County.
Gas rises from a bog on the land of Rochelle and John Spanjers, not far from Mr. Edwards’s land.
Rochelle and John Spanjers first noted H2S smells in 2016, when Mr. Spanjers began to suffer headaches.

Rochelle and John Spanjers live a short drive from Mr. Edwards. A spring appeared in their backyard the month after the province plugged the relief well in 2015. When The Globe visited their property this past fall, it was a boggy mess, with bubbling mud and the telltale stench of rotten eggs ever-present. During a particularly foul belch from the earth, Ms. Spanjers said with a wry smile and a shake of her head that “it’s not even bad today.”

Mr. Spanjers, meanwhile, has been getting headaches. They started around 2016, which is when the Spanjers first noticed the smell of H2S permeating the air around their home. They won’t let their granddaughter near the back of the property, and they sleep with the windows closed, lest the wind change direction and flood the house with noxious gas.

Their neighbour, Paula Jongerden, is also worried about her health. She won’t ride her horses at the back of her property, where the smell of H2S often makes her eyes water and feel sick to her stomach. The toxic substance irritates eyes and airways at low levels, and causes headaches, dizziness and lungs to fill with fluid at higher concentrations.

Like many around here who can’t open their windows in the summer because of the constant smell, she has been writing e-mails to the MNRF for years, and is frustrated about the lack of action on the issue. “This government is supposed to be helping us, and they’re doing the opposite,” she said.

Paula Jongerden, a neighbour of the Spanjers household, has been complaining to authorities for years about the gas.

Norfolk County has 2,633 wells, according to The Globe’s analysis. Of those, 1,879 are abandoned and 204 have an unknown status. And more than 330 are less than the required 75 metres from a building, the minimum setback required under Ontario regulations. In southwestern Ontario, 1,319 wells are located less than 75 metres of a structure. (The setback distances are greater in the Western provinces.)

Mr. Jackson says that MNRF has been underfunded, under-resourced and short-staffed for a decade. He has been involved in Norfolk County’s gas well problem since 2018, when the acting interim Medical Officer of Health of Haldimand-Norfolk reached out to him and a colleague over public health concerns caused by H2S emissions. The county had evacuated 22 homes the prior year after a natural gas well leak caused dangerous levels of H2S.

He believes the government must pay more attention to cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells, and proposed a nationwide federal-provincial orphan well program that would see specific funds and expertise directed to the issue.

As time marches on, pipes corrode and municipalities sprawl into previously undeveloped areas, the problem will only grow worse, he said in an interview. As such, he believes the province needs a royal commission or independent inquiry to properly assess the danger and figure out Ontario’s next steps.

It’s not about assigning blame, he said, but ”the ministry needs some help here.”

Warning signs on Forestry Farm Road in Norfolk County warn of hydrogen sulphide from a nearby leaking gas well.

Kristal Chopp, who has been mayor of Norfolk County since 2018, is frustrated with the lack of action by the provincial government. In a recent interview, she too pointed to the ministry’s plugging of a relief well in 2015 as the beginning of years of problems for residents. But, she says, “senior staff in the ministry don’t want to accept responsibility – and therefore the liability – for plugging that well.”

Ministry spokesman Hayden Kenez said the minister and other MNRF officials met recently with Ms. Chopp and a delegation from Norfolk County to discuss the issue of abandoned gas wells. Mr. Kenez said the “conversation was productive” and that the ministry is committed to working with Norfolk and other affected municipalities to deal with the issue.

To help resolve the problem of orphan wells in Ontario, the province wants cash from the federal government, much like the $1.7-billion Ottawa gave Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. in 2020.

In April 2020, then-minister of the MNRF John Yakabuski wrote to the federal government to request that the province be included in the initiative.

The OPI followed up with its own letter the next month. It suggested to the federal finance and natural resources ministers of the time – Bill Morneau and Seamus O’Regan – that representatives of the federal and provincial governments meet to discuss a funding formula to deal with Ontario’s orphan well issue.

It included a detailed proposal on how an Ontario orphan well reclamation program would work, and requested $270-million to reclaim the 4,400 orphan wells “that pose environmental and safety hazards for landowners and the public.” On August 19, 2021, OPI wrote to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland again requesting a meeting to discuss the Ontario orphan well issue. The OPI told The Globe it still hasn’t received a response from the federal government.

In a statement, the federal finance department said the money earmarked for those three provinces was part of Canada’s response to COVID-19. The cash was meant to “provide targeted and time-limited economic support to sustain jobs in the energy sector while cleaning up the environment in provinces that have a comparatively high reliance on the energy sector,” said the statement provided by spokesman Benoit Mayrand.

While the residents of Norfolk and Wheatley who spoke with The Globe are facing different situations – whether it’s H2S bubbling at the back of their property or a decimated downtown – the overwhelming feeling is that they want the provincial and federal governments to pay more attention to the problem of old leaky wells, lest there be deadly consequences.

“It’s going to be a bigger and bigger problem unless they throw some money at it, get some funding, do some research and do something to find out a way to resolve this issue before it becomes full-blown,” said Mr. Spanjers. “Because all these wells, they’re all getting older, they’re all starting to rust.”

For Ms. Jongerden, the request is very simple: “People need to take us seriously.”

With reports from Colin Graf, a freelance journalist based in Sarnia, Ont.

If you have information to help inform The Globe’s reporting on abandoned wells, please e-mail tips@globeandmail.com

The Decibel: Emma Graney on the Wheatley explosion

Globe energy reporter Emma Graney spoke with The Globe and Mail’s news podcast about what went wrong in Wheatley, Ont., and why experts tell her another explosion like it is “all but guaranteed.” Subscribe for more episodes.

Video: More on the disaster in Wheatley

Learn more about last summer's blast in Wheatley, Ont., and how local officials pressed the province repeatedly for help with the gas leaks plaguing their town.

The Globe and Mail

What are hydrogen sulphide’s effects on humans?

Hydrogen sulphide is a colourless, flammable, corrosive and toxic gas that smells like rotten eggs at low concentrations. Formed by the breakdown of organic materials, H2S can be found in natural gas, crude oil, sewage and swamps.

The gas poses serious health risks, from headaches and breathing problems at low levels to a loss of co-ordination, respiratory paralysis and even death at high concentrations. Gas monitoring and safety equipment are essential when working and living near hydrogen sulphide, which can migrate to the surface through hydrocarbon and water wells among other pathways.

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