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Natural Gas Nation: One fracking day

The Alaska Highway News traced a piece of land from purchase to production. This is Part II of the series.
welder
Welders like this one are paid more than they once were, but they are also expected to do more, according to someone with decades of welding experience.

The fracking day begins in the dead of night.

At 3:15 a.m., Paul Formby wakes up, has a coffee, maybe a protein shake, then works out and waits for the text from his boss, usually around 4 a.m. He heads to his swamping shop.

Once there, the truck is started to warm it up – most of the work usually happens in winter. They get the hoses washed off, then after determining what their job will be today, they start driving, usually about two and a half hours, to their next work sites.

These sites are the fracking wells that will play a large part in the northeastern B.C. economy.

The initial drilling of a well is really a small fraction of the work that needs to be done to keep the structure healthy and operating.

And most of that later work is contracted out to companies of various sizes.

For Roy Verdzak and his well, the company that Encana trusted to do the job on Verdzak's land was Nodes Construction, out of Pouce Coupe.

(Verdzak was featured in Part I of Natural Gas Nation.)

When Nodes is hired, Encana has already done all the pre-work, said Nodes Construction owner Murray Nodes. "We would take and build the thing to their design," he said.

Usually, this involves taking what was once a plain green field and stripping it down to bare dirt, sometimes removing enough layers of ground to dwarf the people removing it.

Nodes is no stranger to this type of work – and the patch. He's been around since the 1990s, when his company was only working on 20 jobs a year, compared to the more than a dozen job sites his company now works on daily.

He's not the only one who is hoping to get some contracts from companies like Encana.

"I guess, typically, there's always competition ... but I think what we've seen in this area has been a gradual increase over so many years that it hasn't had the fall down and check up yet," Nodes said. "You haven't seen the cutthroat competition."

That doesn’t mean that the rivalries are all friendly, or even above board. Nodes acknowledged that in the past some service companies resorted to mischievous behavior to secure contracts.

However, "over the last decade, the industry has changed – a lot of that isn’t acceptable anymore,” he continued. “As far as I know, that’s pretty much out of the industry.”

Nodes said that given the publicly traded nature of many companies these days, “that thing doesn’t fly.”

Once the land is cleared, the natural gas well must be drilled. This falls to larger companies mostly based outside of the Peace Region – according to one local servicing company head, there aren’t any local companies that do this type of work.

“Right up until there's a wellhead, those are large, international companies,” the source said.

B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission keeps records for Well pad 12-10-79-17W6, the one on Verdzak’s property. They show that the first well of the six-well pad – Well A12-10-79-17W6 – began drilling on Sept. 28, 2012, and was finished by Oct. 17.

On that same day, work was begun on the next well, and by Nov. 23, both the second and third wells were done. (The rest were done in roughly the same time a year later.)

 

The fracking

The “fracking” doesn’t happen at just one point, though. For the first well, the fracking started at 2,500 metres underground, and continued all the way down to a base of 4,500 metres – that’s more than a mile from top to base.

Let’s just say one can’t drill that by hand. To do it, producers need a massive drilling rig. The rig that drilled Verdzak’s well is long gone, but as of Sept. 22, there were about 48 rigs drilling in northeastern B.C.

One of them – working away about 60 kilometres north of Hudson’s Hope – was Trinidad 46, owned by Trinidad Drilling.

Lisa Ottman, the company’s vice-president of investor relations, said that northeastern B.C. is “probably one of our busiest areas.”

In the Montney area located around Fort St. John, Ottman estimates that this summer, they had 14 rigs working there, each with about five workers.

Basically, a lot of pipe is connected to a large drill bit – the diameter can be between five to 20 inches, depending on the rig – to penetrate the ground. It drills down beneath any fresh water.

Then they remove the drill bit and the pipe connecting it. This is done manually – a derrick hand working near the top of the rig and a floorhand working on the floor of the rig pull it out in bits until it’s all done.

Then they put in a steel pipe called “surface casing” that is thinner than the hole, and pour cement down through that steel pipe. The cement goes through the pipe and then fills in the barrier between the surface casing and the first, bigger hole.

This process is supposed to protect groundwater aquifers from any kind of contamination. The cement can be poured multiple times to create more layers between the gas and any groundwater.

Then a different downhole drilling motor is used to push sideways – the horizontal drilling that is one of the key technological features of modern fracking – and then create the same surface casing for that hole.

After all this, the team sends out miniature explosions to create fissures in the ground where they believe gas can be retrieved. Then they pump in “fracking fluid” made up of water and other materials.

These other materials, like sand, keep the fracks open, but then they suck the water back up, which now has natural gas in it.

 

The pipelines

It does not stop there. On Verdzak’s property, there are further, interwoven threads of pipeline that carry the natural gas from these wells.

These pipelines are built and tested by people like “Walter,” a welder who has been working in and around the area for thirty years. (Walter is a pseudonym, as the man did not want to give out his real name.)

“The pipeline starts at one location, but then they go to a new location the very next day,” he said. “Doing three kilometres, in ten days you're 30 kilometres away ... for some people who are a bit like gypsies, they really like it. I didn't particularly hate it myself.”

It’s work that especially requires good hand-eye coordination, Walter continued.

“You're dealing with thousandths of an inch, not tenths of an inch,” he said. “You're trying to put that weld on as tight and neat as possible – not everybody is good at looking at a candle flame ten hours a day.”

But there’s also a competitive nature to welding – to do it the neatest, fastest and so on.

Perhaps partly due to this race to the top, Walter said he has seen the industry change. Beforehand, pipes weren’t as strong, light or as stringently tested. Now, every portion of pipeline is X-rayed before it’s put down.

“Everything is visually checked,” he said. “They're checking travel, how far you make your welding rod go, what aperture you're using, what voltage,” he said. “They just won't pass anything that's no good. It's not worth their while. There are way more inspectors than ever before.”

The expectations of welders have changed, too. In the earlier days, Walter said, a professional welder would complete 50 or 60 inches an hour for $50. Now, welders are asked to do more – say, 100 inches – but they are often paid much more to do so.

“Now you're doing the work of two or three people, and the cost of living has gone up all the time,” he said. “I've seen instances where they're using very large ... rolling welds in somebody's yard, using welding rods way too big for the pipe. That gets it done fast, it might pass x-rays, but it's got the wrong heat input. It’s not an acceptable welding practice.”

 

'Get paid what you're worth'

The volatility of the oilpatch can also lead to very fragmenting labour situations for skilled labourers. Walter said that in one case, a group of welders were on strike for a $5 an hour increase – something the company didn’t want to pay. But later, their employers needed to raise wages much more than that, just to get the people that they needed.

As most people in the Northeast know, skilled labour is in high demand. According to the Globe and Mail, about 4,000 welders and related machine operators will be needed here in coming years – putting it in the top 10 of the most in-demand positions in B.C.

But there are also opportunities for people who don’t have an official trade certification. You could do “swamping” work like Formby.

Some of his duties in the patch require him to vacuum water either from the pipeline – because there’s too much water and the pipeline is freezing up – or in other cases, cleaning up spilled water that contains chemicals.

But this isn’t the type of vacuuming done by anyone with thin skin. It’s done with big trucks and heavy hoses, usually in the coldest months of the year in one of the coldest regions of B.C.

“You're constantly leaning over to hold onto the vacuum,” said Formby. “If you’re doing that for a few hours in the cold, it can be really bad.”

But Formby had plenty of good things to say about the job he does.

“There are really no opportunities in other fields in B.C., I noticed. Well, there are, but not nearly as much coming in as a new worker,” said Formby. “Basically you're making pretty good money, basically clearing a $100,000 off the start per year ... I love it actually.”

Formby is nothing if not ambitious. Formby said he and his cousin are saving up $500,000 to open their own vac truck shop.

He said he wants to “stir things up” in Fort St. John, adding that a superior once called him “the Wolf of Fort St. John,” comparing him to Wall Street criminal Jordan Belfort, the subject of the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

“You're getting paid what you're worth (as a swamper) ... it is dangerous, and you get worked really hard, but you get paid what you're worth,” he said. “I’ve worked digging ditches for $9 an hour, and it's not worth it. You're going to work hard, but you're going to get paid decent.”

Both he and Walter agreed that there are some jobs in patch that pay well for people without a diploma.

The people who enter it don’t have to take out costly university loans, and can enter the work force early and make enough money to “stay alive,” Walter added. But there’s a tradeoff in family life that these patch workers can be called to make.

“You can't do this job and have a family at home,” Formby said. “How do you expect to work 27 days in (a month) ... and take care of a newborn baby?”

Formby, who's single, said there are others who come in with a family.

Walter pointed to  domestic violence and drug abuse as problems.

“If you smoke a few joints with friends at Christmastime and you (go back to work) Jan. 4, you're going to miss the drug and alcohol test,” Walter said. “You could drink six beers and pass it; you can smoke some crack and it's not in your system. So people have gravitated to where they don't get caught ... a lot of guys are just working to supply their nose.”

Formby said that he does not abuse drugs, and that most of the people he works with are simply there to work.

And that work, for the most part, is something that some people could not manage.

Work, for him, isn’t over until 11 p.m. Even then, he must still go home, eat, and do anything else that he may need to do.

Only by 12 p.m. is he in bed, ready to grab three hours of sleep before the next day. Maybe he’ll get a bit more, if he can grab some shut-eye in the truck while his boss drives him to his next job site.

And that, for the most part, is how the people who actually work on the wells live, and how the natural gas from wells like Verdzak’s gets pulled out.

But what happens when the well starts to go dry? And what happens to the well – and the water it uses?

reporter@ahnfsj.ca

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