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Orphaned, abandoned, reclaimed: understanding how wells are classed

Alberta - February 04, 2020

Wells have been on the tip of many Albertans’ tongues as of late. That’s because Alberta has a lot of them—over a century of oil and gas development in the province has given us hundreds of thousands of wells dotting the landscape.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) requires companies—also referred to as “licensees”—to make sure that wells pose no threat to public safety or the environment. This goes for wells that are categorized as inactive, suspended, abandoned, reclaimed, and orphaned.

The AER also ensures that Albertans are protected from the cost of abandoning and reclaiming upstream oil and gas wells, facilities, pipelines, and their associated sites.

While wells may differ slightly depending on the type or location, the graphic below demonstrates how wells in different phases of the energy life cycle may look.

Graphic of wells in different phases of the energy life cycle


An inactive well is one that hasn’t produced oil or gas, hasn’t injected fluids, or hasn’t disposed of waste for 6 or 12 months, depending on how the well is classified for risk under Directive 013: Suspension Requirements for Wells.


Once inactive, wells outlined in Directive 013 must be suspended to ensure public safety and environmental protection. Wells can remain suspended until a company determines that the well is no longer needed for energy development and can be abandoned. Learn more about how wells are suspended in Alberta.

Graphic of suspended wells


When a well is no longer needed for oil and gas development, it must be permanently sealed and taken out of service. This process is known as abandonment. Directive 020: Well Abandonment details strict rules that ensure that the well is in a safe and secure state. Plugs are inserted in the well to help prevent anything from reaching the surface. Although they don’t pose a significant risk to the environment or public, leaks are possible. If a leak happens, the company, which is responsible for repairing it, must notify the AER immediately. Learn more about how wells are abandoned in Alberta.


Once an energy project has been properly closed and abandoned at the surface, a company may begin remediating and reclaiming the site. Companies must return the disturbed land to a state comparable to the state it was in before development; they will always remain responsible for any infrastructure left beneath the surface.

Companies must clearly demonstrate that all site issues—for instance, ensuring that any contaminated soil meets Alberta Environment and Parks’ remediation criteria—have been addressed. Each year, the AER randomly selects sites for audit. During an audit, the AER evaluates whether a site is compliant with current surface and subsurface guidelines and criteria. Learn more about reclamation in Alberta.


Orphan wells can be in any state: inactive, suspended, abandoned, or even producing. The AER may designate a well as orphan if there are no legally responsible parties that can be ordered to clean up the well after the licensee becomes insolvent. Once a well and the associated site are designated as orphan, the Orphan Well Association provides care and custody of the site until the well has been abandoned and reclaimed.

Resource editor