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B.C. natural gas well cleanup shifts to Indigenous land sites

Court says network of wells, roads violated 1899 treaty rights
Natural gas well pad in the rural community of Penobsquis, N.B. in 2014. B.C.’s gas development is centred on the northeast of the province, greatly expanded in recent years with development of shale gas deposits. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

The B.C. and federal governments are moving ahead with a second round of work to shut down and restore thousands of dormant natural gas wells across northeastern B.C., shifting the focus to Indigenous claims.

B.C. received a $220 million share of the federal fund in May 2020, and announced the second $50 million program this week. That will fund work at 716 well sites, with 659 of them nominated by Indigenous people, the B.C. energy and mines ministry said in a statement July 8.

The restoration of more than 9,000 dormant or abandoned wells identified by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission is far from complete. The 2020 program funded work on nearly 1,900 wells, when 7,000 sites had been identified, and this year’s contracts cover fewer than half of the 1,464 applications received. Companies are awarded up to $100,000 for each well location.

B.C.’s huge investment in liquefied natural gas exports to Asia was shaken this week by a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found decades of forest, oil and gas development in the Fort St. John area violated the terms of Treaty 8, signed in 1899 with Indigenous people in a vast area of northeast B.C. and Alberta that are now the heart of natural gas development.

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The lawsuit was brought by the Blueberry River First Nations, which showed that more than 80 per cent of its territory is within 500 metres of an industrial disturbance, including resource roads, oil and gas wells and the dams on the Peace River. The ruling gives the province six months to work out a settlement, or stop permits for further industrial development in Blueberry River territory.

Indigenous oil and gas field service businesses also get priority for the second round of the dormant sites reclamation program, with 11 local companies included. The 2021 round “has opened the door for our participation, incentivizing our inclusion, in a manner that was not available to us in the first round,” said Brad Bonner, president of the Halfway River Group, a collection of Halfway River First Nation businesses.

The federal fund was launched in 2020 to provide short-term industrial work in the oil and gas industry that was devastated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that caused world prices to plummet. The price of oil has since recovered to nearly $70 per barrel, as B.C. consumers pay record prices of $1.70 per litre or more at the pump.


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