An oil and gas wellfield that helped fuel Moncton a century ago may soon shut down permanently.
ORLEN Upstream Canada Ltd. has filed an environmental impact assessment to decommission 44 oil and gas wells, some that still produce crude oil sent to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
The request seeks to plug the wells and remediate the area around the wellheads in southeastern New Brunswick.
"Combined with rising crude oil prices and a move towards decarbonizing the Canadian economy, ORLEN has decided to concentrate its exploration and development operations to higher yield, more diverse oil and gas reserves in Western Canada and around the world and to decommission low producing or unviable operations," says a 228-page document filed this summer by Dillon Consulting.
No one from the company's Canadian operations or its parent company based in Poland provided interviews requested at the start and end of August.
ORLEN is one of the few companies extracting oil and gas in the province. Headwater Exploration, previously known as Corridor Resources, has a natural gas well east of Sussex that became a focal point in the debate about shale gas about a decade ago.
ORLEN's plan would close a chapter on New Brunswick's early hydrocarbon industry.
The document filed with the province's Department of the Environment and Local Government at the end of July lays out a history of the wellfield the company is seeking to decommission.
It says initial exploration in New Brunswick began in 1858 with shallow wells in the Memramcook area on the east side of the Petitcodiac River, but work stopped when vast reserves were discovered in Pennsylvania the following year.
Exploration of the Stoney Creek portion of the wellfield, on the west side of the Petitcodiac, began in 1908 and it produced natural gas until 1991.
The wellfield supplied natural gas to nearby Hillsborough and north to Moncton through a 14-kilometre pipeline.
Sophie Cormier, Moncton's director of culture and heritage, said it was a significant selling point for the city.
"The city used to advertise itself as the city with natural gas," Cormier said. "Moncton was the only city in the east that had a gas field and that had production that they were able to sell."
Cormier said the availability of gas to heat and light homes and businesses drew industry to the area. One of the biggest customers was the Canadian Government Railways workshops, the nationalized railway headquartered in Moncton that, according to the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, later became Canadian National (CN) Railway.
A 1994 Times-Transcript newspaper story recounts that during the First World War, "underground mains provided citizens with this wonderfully cheap form of energy.
"Considering the ever increasing war-time demand for coal and wood, Moncton became known as 'the city with natural gas.'"
The story said there were more than 3,100 customers by 1917.
After the war, however, the story notes estimates of the natural gas reserves were overestimated and supply needed to be curtailed.
Eventually commercial customers were cut off, and by the 1950s "the ever-diminishing supply and ever-increasing prices had swept aside past dreams of cheap, limitless energy."
"The dream of making it like Pittsburgh or other cities that really relied on gas for their industry was just not possible," Cormier said.
Later, Irving Oil held a lease on the wellfield. Between 2005 and 2008, Irving decommissioned 42 wells. Some were later reactivated by Contact Exploration Inc., which also drilled new wells and built a storage facility in Stoney Creek.
The last well was drilled in 2010. In 2014, Contact merged with another to form Kicking Horse Energy Inc. ORLEN bought that company the following year.
"ORLEN has indicated their desire to decommission the wells that remain in ORLEN's care, and to eventually completely exit the region," the document states.
The primary wellfield with 17 active and 18 inactive wells is in Stoney Creek, several kilometres south of Moncton. Five inactive wells are farther south near Hillsborough.
Two inactive wells are on the east side of the Petitcodiac River near Memramcook, and two other inactive wells are in Monteagle, north of Salisbury.
Crude trucked to Irving refinery
All of the wells are on privately owned land. Those landowners received lease payments because of the wells.
Crude oil from the active wells is collected at the storage site before being trucked to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
"The economic viability of the remaining wells for production is limited in the current and expected future economic climate," the environmental impact assessment document states.
"There is simply insufficient production in the active wells, and limited potential for additional development, to take advantage of economies of scale at this wellfield that are required for a stable and viable operation in an ever-changing and volatile global oil and gas market."
The document says decommissioning would involve placing cement plugs at various depths in the wells, capping the casing and removing any surface infrastructure. Any contaminated soil from the well sites would be removed and sent to an approved disposal facility.
The document says if approval is granted, work is expected to start this year and be complete by 2027.