April 18th, 2019

Artist brings attention to orphan wells in Alberta

By Kalinowski, Tim on November 22, 2018.

Artist Alana Bartol speaks on her work with dowsing and orphan well sites during an Art NOW Series presentation earlier this week at the University of Lethbridge. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Tim Kalinowski

Lethbridge Herald


“Still ground. No trespassing allowed. Phantom rumblings shake my hollow bones. I was decapitated long ago, but I still loom large over the land. I had a leak, but I can’t feel it any more. Do I poison the soil below?”

This is the fictional question asked by “Thirsty Bird,” an orphaned well based in Three Hills, and was presented as the first offering by Alana Bartol, an Alberta-based artist, dowser and orphan well activist, during her presentation at the “Art NOW Series” at the University of Lethbridge’s Recital Hall on Monday.

“I am really interested in art creating a space for people to think about their relationship to the oil and gas industries, and other extractive industries, in Canada,” explained Bartol, who is also the founder of the collaborative art piece the Orphan Well Adoption Agency. “And to think about the role of care and empathy in the petroleum industries.”

Bartol said she is extremely concerned about the problem of abandoned and orphaned wells, which are given little thought and attention by Albertans. Bartol hoped to use the appeal and interest generated by dowsing to bring greater attention to the issue. Bartol’s family has practised dowsing for several generations, and it is a practice she continues to this day.

“Dowsing, which is also called water-witching, is a form of divination usually used to find groundwater, but has also been used to find oil, mineral ores, information and lost objects,” she explained. “So in this project, the Orphan Well Adoption Agency employs dowsers. And these dowsers go to orphan well sites and they use dowsing as a method to listen to the sites, and receive information from the sites. That information results in videos, sculptural works but also in letters that are then sent to caretakers. So a big part of this art project is people can symbolically adopt an orphan well in Alberta and receive correspondence from their well.”

And it is not just Bartol who thinks orphan wells are a pressing problem for Albertans. According to Alberta’s Energy Regulator (AER), as of September there were 2,061 orphan wells in the province which have been abandoned for various reasons, and another 1,100 wells which have been orphaned due to drilling licence suspensions. And it is not a distant problem from southern Alberta either. In the Taber area alone, as an example, there were nearly 100 wells abandoned when energy company Neo Exploration Inc. ceased operations, according to the BOE Report, which closely monitors oil and gas drilling activity in the province. Earlier this month, the AER estimated Alberta’s current liability to taxpayers from orphaned and abandoned wells is about $58.7 billon.

“This (Orphan Well Adoption Agency) project is a way to make a connection between these sites and individuals, and to perhaps prompt some action and raise awareness of the issue of orphan wells,” stated Bartol. “I hope the project itself can offer a way for people to think about issues of contamination and remediation, and about our relationship to the oil and gas industries in general.”

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