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Destroyed buildings in the centre of Wheatley, Ont., on Oct. 26, 2021, two months after an explosion.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Environmental groups say the Ontario government needs to ensure that thousands of potentially dangerous abandoned oil and gas wells in the province do not cause future explosions like the one that rocked Wheatley, Ont., nearly a year ago.

Representatives of Greenpeace and Environmental Defence both said in interviews on Friday that the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry needs to start aggressively tracking down and resealing the more than 4,400 wells identified as potentially dangerous by the Ontario Petroleum Institute, an industry group – rather than leaving the problem largely in the hands of municipalities and private landowners, as the province currently does.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation detailed what happened in the months leading up to the explosion last August in Wheatley, a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, southeast of Windsor. The blast destroyed two buildings and injured about 20 people.

According to documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests, the local municipality of Chatham-Kent pleaded unsuccessfully with provincial officials to step in and do more to deal with the danger, after hydrogen sulphide and methane gas believed to have originated in an old well was discovered bubbling up in the basement of a defunct pub in June 2021. In the weeks after gas was first detected, the province said it could offer only “commentary,” and that dealing with the emergency was the municipality’s responsibility.

Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said Premier Doug Ford’s government and its predecessors at Queen’s Park have been warned that abandoned oil and gas wells are a danger, not just because of possible explosions but also because of the wells’ effects on water wells, and the potentially poisonous effects of gas leaks.

“This is a problem that they knew about. And they’ve done nothing,” Mr. Stewart said. “Even in the face of water contamination, or buildings blowing up, they still don’t actually have a strategy for dealing with this problem, which gets worse every year.”

Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence, said successive provincial governments have dragged their feet on the issue.

“I think it’s not fair, nor is it responsible to leave this to the local authorities, who clearly don’t have the capacity to deal with this,” Mr. Brooks said.

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told The Globe in an e-mailed response to a series of questions that it is working on a new strategy to deal with abandoned oil wells. Asked for more details, ministry spokesperson Hayden Kenez said the strategy was in “the early stages of development,” and that the ministry had no more to add. The office of Minister Graydon Smith declined to make him available for an interview on Friday.

Ontario has a fund that spends $1-million to $3-million each year to cap about 20 wells. The ministry said in its e-mail that the government had appointed a multi-ministry technical team to study the issue from 2017 to 2019.

Nearly eight months after an explosion rocked Wheatley, Ont., more residents are finally returning home

The ministry said the team’s work confirmed that “sulfur in groundwater mixes with natural gas and generates hydrogen sulfide in the ground” and that “legacy wells, water wells, and natural cracks in bedrock” can act as conduits for gas to move to the surface. The team also concluded that more study was needed.

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), in many cases more than 50 years ago, according to a Globe and Mail analysis. The status of 6,210 wells is unknown.

Some industry experts say Ontario’s regime for handling risky wells pales in comparison to the tougher rules and monitoring in place in Western provinces, where landowners and small municipalities are not left to lead responses to orphan oil or gas wells. Wells abandoned decades ago can leak over time, and the materials used to plug them can corrode.

Ryan Doull, a specialist in finding leaking gas, worked on the Wheatley response after the explosion, but is no longer involved in the effort. He said the same situation in Alberta or other Western provinces would have been handled much differently. Once a problematic orphan well or a potentially dangerous leak is discovered, an industry-funded regulatory body takes over and deals with the situation.

“There’s no incentive for any landowner [in Ontario] that has a well on their property to disclose it, because there’s fear that they are going to have to pay a bunch of money to fix it,” said Mr. Doull, who is now an emissions monitoring liability specialist with Calgary-based 360 Liability Management Ltd. “And it seems like a very challenging exercise for anybody that’s got wells to have them repaired and addressed properly.”

With a report from Chen Wang

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