Ministry has focus set on wrong gas wells

By MPP Bobbi Ann Brady

It surprises most that Ontario is the birthplace to North America’s petroleum industry, with its beginnings in Lambton County in 1858. 

Over the past 160-plus years, as many as 50,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the province. Many of the wells were drilled initially for commercial purposes but were later sold to landowners when they could no longer produce commercially-viable levels of natural gas. It may also be surprising that some farmers and rural property owners have private natural gas wells.

In Haldimand County, many properties rely on natural gas wells. These wells, which are maintained and licensed, provide gas to heat homes, barns, and shops. These wells are essential to these homeowners, farmers, and farms. Therefore I want to be clear: I support the right of rural property owners to operate a private gas well; they should be able to access and use the gas produced from their well(s) in any way they choose. 

Private gas well owners have had ongoing battles since the enactment of the Oil Gas and Salt Resources Act in 1997. The latest battle license holders have is that they have received notice from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) that their license will have a final expiration date of September 13, 2032. In the Ontario Legislature last week, I called on MNRF Minister Graydon Smith to find a better way forward.

In his response, the Minister said he would conduct consultations this Spring but did not elaborate on which issues. I have so far had a very positive working relationship with Minister Smith, and we agree to stay in touch on this issue. However, I urge those affected to attend the consultations to ensure the Ministry knows these wells are vital to rural Ontario. 

I also asked the Minister about legacy wells – wells that have been abandoned, are not maintained, and are far different from those mentioned earlier in the column. Southwestern Ontario is ground central for these dormant wells, with Norfolk County home to 2,634. You have likely read about the well in Norfolk County on Forestry Farm Road, which has been problematic since 2015. 

The County is not equipped to handle or monitor the well, and the council fears that one more of this magnitude could financially destroy the municipality. 

In my line of questioning in the House, I spoke about the unfortunate events at Wheatley in 2021, where a hydrogen sulfide leak exploded under 15 Erie Street North, the former home of the Pogue pub. Estimates to clean up after the explosion were in the ballpark of $20 million. Miraculously no life was lost, but that may not happen next time.

A recent McGill University study looked at abandoned wells, testing hydrogen sulfide and methane levels. The study concluded the methane levels were underestimated. Experts predict it’s just a matter of time until another explosion occurs — Chatham-Kent, Lambton, Elgin, and Norfolk could be the powder keg.

It’s time the MNRF takes its focus off licensed gas wells and focuses on problematic ones. Further, the province must ask the federal government to help as this is an issue beyond Ontario’s scope. The federal government provided money to plug oil wells in western Canada, but it’s time the two governments work together to ward off a pending environmental and catastrophic disaster.

Bobbi Ann Brady is MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk