The numbers are daunting. There is a backlog of more than 97,000 inactive oil and gas wells in Alberta that need to be closed. Another 100,000 wells are marginal producers and will soon be inactive, and also in need of proper closure.

About 40,000 active and inactive wells (including some already closed) are leaking methane and other gases into the atmosphere. Some are leaking into ground water. So, they need to be repaired first, then decommissioned and closed (“abandoned,” in legacy terminology).

InnoTech Alberta, an applied research subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, is working with regulators and industry to develop innovative, efficient, effective and economic technologies to accelerate the decommissioning process. As such, InnoTech has made great strides by identifying new and better materials and techniques to fix and close wells to make them safe going forward.

News outlets cited a University of Calgary School of Public Policy research paper which found that the costs of Alberta’s mounting well liabilities are falling unfairly on landowners and taxpayers.

Cut costs of sealing leaking wells

The estimated price tag for remediating the leaking wells in Alberta is about $6 billion. But InnoTech believes it has enough evidence that, with the new methods and sealants, the cost can be reduced by half – down to about $3 billion – with better outcomes.

The problem goes back many, many decades. “We have a very large number of old wells that have not been cemented properly from the time they were originally drilled, and a few wells in which leak pathways have occurred as a result of what happened during the production life,” says engineer Gerry Boyer, a member of the InnoTech sub-surface well remediation team working out of an Alberta Innovates facility in Calgary – the Calgary Research Park.

“The root cause of the orphan well situation is that many of these marginal wells landed in the hands of operators who didn’t have the financial capability to do the full well remediation and closure, and effectively a lot of these companies went bankrupt,” Boyer says.

“A leaky well has to be fixed first, then downhole suspended and abandoned, and then cut and capped and finally the site surface reclamation work is done,” he says.

“When trying to repair a leaking well outside of the casing, where it wasn’t cemented properly with traditional cement, the success rate is low and the costs are high. So, what we’re attempting to do is a whole program of activity, but mostly around the use of alternative products for repairing wells that leak.”

A worldwide problem

The issue is not restricted to Alberta. It is a worldwide problem, say Boyer, Fred Wassmuth, InnoTech’s manager of in-situ recovery, and senior research engineer Jonathan Heseltine, who comprise InnoTech’s sub-surface well remediation team.

InnoTech leveraged its strong industry reputation and strengths – its applied research expertise and specialized testing facilities – and its role as a connector and neutral third party, to facilitate the solutions. The well remediation team has tested several alternative products that are more effective than cement in repairing wells and closing wells.

Section of well casing in a press test.

Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), an industry association that advances R&D and new technologies, chose InnoTech to evaluate three wellbore sealant products.

In addition to using InnoTech’s specialized facilities to test the products for their properties and effectiveness, the team is evaluating product safety for people and the environment, says Heseltine. And they are developing product standards and recommending application techniques for well operators and service providers. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is also very interested in this work and is expected to accept the use of several products in field trials based on InnoTech results and recommendations.

InnoTech is ready to share its results and knowledge with Western Canadian operators and beyond our borders, as well. InnoTech is co-hosting a series of technical workshops with an international partner, a technology centre in the U.K. called the OGTC.

Sharing the knowledge

The four-part workshop series, which runs May 12 to June 23, presents technology updates from service providers with input from researchers and enabling organizations. Participants include oil and gas operators and their engineering firms, regulators and government representatives, and other stakeholders in Canada and Europe.

The U.K. has a similar issue with decommissioning its offshore wells – with an even higher cost liability per well – and so the OGTC has been collaborating with InnoTech, with the two organizations leveraging knowledge in both directions, Wassmuth says.

The ultimate satisfaction for the InnoTech well remediation team will be to see their efforts lead to solutions that solve this enormous environmental and financial problem, and to have Alberta export the solutions around the world.

They are uniquely filling a gap between well operators, service providers, researchers and regulators to make it happen.

As Boyer puts it: “I’ve been on a personal 20-year mission to get wells drilled properly so they don’t leak, and to manage them so they don’t leak, and to decommission them so that they’re safe forever. For me, knowing that’s happening [would fulfil] a lifetime career commitment.”