It must have been a humbling experience when Randy Galbreath first broke into the pipeline construction business in 1982 at the age of 27. The Fort St. John, British Columbia native had been a licensed carpenter and foreman on a number of projects until the economy took a turn for the worse in 1981. He was living in Fairview, Alberta at the time, where the oil patch was king and a fairly large pipeline contractor was hiring. So, Galbreath changed professions.
It was back to square one.
"The first day on the job," he recalled, "they handed me a shovel."
"I worked for that fellow from 1982 to 1997 and [then] he sold out," Galbreath continued. "Then I actually started another company. And then I got bought out by a public company. And then I just kind of stayed through some transitions. And it got bought a couple of times and it was too big of a company. So, then I quit and started on my again, because I couldn't work in a big organization. You couldn't get your ideas across, which is something I always had even when I went to work for the other fellow. He always listened to whatever, sort of thing. But big organizations tend to tell you what to do and try not to think too much, right? So I had enough. Then in 2003 I started Stratus Pipelines."
Today, he is still the president and general manager of the Grande Prairie-based company, as well as one of the most respected innovators in the region for his collaborative work with oil and gas company Devon Energy and Alberta Environment on ways of minimizing the impact of surface disturbance caused during pipeline construction.
"We always had issues, eh?" said Galbreath, noting that business in the pipeline industry had been good, but they were continually running into conflict with clients and the provincial government over specifications and regulations.
"In all of our contracts," he continued, "they set out backfill procedures and welding procedures and the whole nine yards and we were essentially following them. Then they would also set out specifications on a pipeline right-of-way of, when you strip [soil], you had to have certain distances between the topsoil and the spoil or the clay from the ditch. They had these fancy diagrams all done. But you couldn't physically do that out on a right-of-way."
"When you do a nice drawing - straight lines with a pencil - you can make anything fit, right? But dirt, once you strip it, doesn't pile up as neatly as the drawings indicated in the specifications. And so, consequently, [it] would take up more room on a right-of-way. So, you could never get the one metre separation [between topsoil and spoil] that they asked for. And so we kind of knew that. That's what we had to bid to, but we knew we couldn't do it."
That was the early nineties. As Galbreath remembers, Doug Kulba of Alberta Environment - who would later play a significant role in developing and promoting new pipelining strategies through Partners in Resource Excellence and the Evergreen Centre for Resource Excellence and Innovation in Grande Prairie - was often on the other side of the table as Galbreath discussed the specifications with his client. There were frequent disagreements. Kulba knew that Galbreath couldn't maintain the appropriate separation between topsoil and spoil on a fifteen metre or eighteen metre right-of way, but Galbreath really felt that he had no choice but to basically pretend that it was possible and strip the right-of-way that he was given. However, it was also at that time that he suggested that it could be done if he had the right tools for the job. That was a modest first step toward innovation.
"When I first started pipelining in 1982, there was a lot of pipeline installed at about 42 inches depth-wise," Galbreath explained. "Then it had moved to like four feet. So, now, all of a sudden you're starting to dig a little bit deeper. You dig deeper, you got more dirt to deal with, right?"
Four feet soon turned into five feet.
"So, that added another foot of clay you're digging out of the ditch, which you need to find room for on the right-of-way," he added.
He even recalls cases where the trench had to be six feet deep because a lot of farmers and other landowners wanted the pipelines running through their property to be deeper in the ground. As a result, the spoil piles were almost twice the size as when he started in the industry. Compounding the issue is that clay also expands to almost twice the volume when taken from its compacted state in the ground. Right-of-ways were also growing from 15 metres to 18 metres and finally 22 metres.
"Graders and dozers [are] conventional equipment that's used to pack dirt back in a trench," said Galbreath. "Well, if conditions are perfect - like the moisture content in the clay and stuff, and you have a large enough grader - you may very well be able to get all that dirt [back in the trench]. And I say you're not going to get it all back in then either. You're going to get a pretty good percentage of that back in the ground, but you're going to some left that you'll have to do something with, right? You can't have a big mound over the ditch. So, we stripped the right-of-way so that we could feather this dirt across the right-of-way."
"And, of course, that's the clay."
Galbreath noticed that that the nutrient-poor clay was usually trapped between the topsoil and the nutrient-rich layer below, which wasn't the proper order of things. It was a problem for farmers trying to grow crops. Additionally, there would often only be two inches of topsoil instead of six inches at that point.
"And our clay is great stuff," he said. "That's why we have lots of dugouts in this country. You dig a dugout here and that clay will hold water. Like nothing soaks in."
The other issue was that it was accepted practice not to return a hundred per cent of the soil to the trench, which resulted in slumpage.
"Once you know how to look for this, it's easy to spot," said Galbreath. "Not very difficult. And the thing that you have to remember, what is bringing this on more than it did say five or ten or fifteen years ago, is farmers in this country, generally speaking, would do some sort of disking or cultivating in the spring. And disking and cultivating in the fall. That was kind of a standard practice, right? So, if there was any slumping happening in a ditch, it would be filled in every year just through this normal practice, right?"
"But now we've gone from 500,000 acres in 1995 of zero or no-till to something in the order of 12 million acres [of no-till]," he continued. "So, when these guys do no-till, once slumping starts, it doesn't get repaired unless you actually physically go out there and try to repair it."
"Now," Galbreath added, "the other thing that was happening that most people don't really see, but you can, is when you crown this clay over top of a ditch line over an area of three or four metres wide or five metres wide or whatever, then when you put the topsoil back, that topsoil goes back perfectly level. But there's a crown underneath it of clay. So, when a landowner gets his disk or cultivator in there, and runs that disk down ... you're then mixing that clay into the topsoil. So, you've degraded a three or four or five or six metre wide swath of what was once topsoil to now mostly clay."
According to Galbreath, the combination of no-till practices and the usual effects of the weather - freeze-thaw cycles, rain, snow, spring melt - were turning trenches on farmers fields into speed bumps, a big problem at a time when farmers are now seeding and fertilizing at speeds of fifteen kilometres per hour.
"They preset a lot of stuff," he explained, "and they have to travel at this constant speed for the whole right-of-way, because the seed and fertilizer goes in at a comparable rate to the speed of the tractor, too. So, if they have to slow down every time they're going to hit a pipeline trench, they're either over-seeding or over-fertilizing."
"We did a count one time," Galbreath continued. "And for a full quarter section of land, if a pipeline crosses a full quarter, if you consider they probably may harrow in the spring, in a zero till, then they're going to seed, and then they're to going to spray, then they'll swath, and then they'll combine that field. ... Sometimes, they may even do an extra harrow in there. Going back and forth on a field - and it depends a little bit on the width of your equipment - you can hit that same trench up to 600 times in a year. That's very annoying, right? ... Landowners say they can feel that. Even when they were in a cultivating sort of a scenario, they could feel that pipeline right-of-way every time they hit it, because that clay is so much heavier than topsoil is, that as soon as you hit it, you can just feel the tractor lug down and kind of work its way through and carry on."
"We didn't really run into any super mad farmers or anything like that," he added. "These are all good people, right? They're just trying to make a living. And a lot of them don't really expect - after the pipeline has gone through - they haven't really been filled in. They don't realize what could happen if things don't go perfectly. So, they get quite upset. And that's why we have landowner groups everywhere. They're all over. And they're fighting pipelines."
So, it was becoming crucial to try to solve those problems.
At that time, Galbreath was asked to do reclamation work for a pipeline that had settled on the property of an upset landowner, although it wasn't a pipeline that his company had built. A lucky coincidence was the discovery of a new soil compacting wheel that fit on an excavator during that same period. So, Galbreath arranged a demonstration of the equipment. Unexpectedly, Kulba attended, but there were none of the old disagreements that day.
"He had made the decision that he [was] going to try to work with us, try to figure out how to solve this," Galbreath said of Kulba. "So, he came to this demonstration and it was really, very enlightening."
"So, we started talking," he continued. "We went and did this clean-up and we started talking. Doug's an avid reader. He reads and researches steady. So, he started throwing these ideas out at us. Now, of course, some of them you kind of throw out and some of them you say, 'Well, you know, that kind of makes sense. Why don't we try that?' Because he can go on every pipeline right-of-way in the province and you can't say no.
"But, me, I just get to go on mine. So, if you're doing something - I won't say wrong - incorrectly, if you will. And it's something you're doing, you never get to see to correct it. We don't learn by doing stuff perfectly. We only learn from our mistakes, right? If you can see that somebody is doing something better or something can be done differently, that's an opportunity to learn. But if you just do the same thing over and over and over again, there's no learning opportunity there. So, we kind of worked through this."
"And it was amazing. We, for the first time, actually would have a job where we could phone Doug and say, 'I think we're going to run into a little trouble here if we do this. What do you think?' And he was right there with his input. If you needed help, you had a direction you could go. There were a couple of jobs we started that involved some landowners a little bit. I loved it. They didn't want to tell me how to run my job, but they really wanted to understand what it was we were trying to do out there. You start doing that and it's really kind of amazing. Rather than each entity being its own island, it kind of became a continent, so to speak. And that works better."
The compaction wheel was just part of the solution. The other was a narrower bucket to decrease the amount of soil being taken out of the trench.
"Excavators come with buckets for the most part 36 to 52 inches big," said Galbreath. "Why are we digging a ditch that big, in good ground condition, to put a four inch piece of pipe in? It didn't make sense. It's something that never made sense to me for a long time. But everywhere we went, people said, 'Well, if you get smaller bucket, it won't clean.' There were all kinds of excuses why we weren't trying something different. Doug had talked to this inventor fellow. And he had actually built a narrower bucket for the bigger excavators. I said, 'Okay.' But, of course, what happened was as soon as we had dug a narrower ditch, we didn't have anything to compact it with. Because even the packing wheels at the time ... were 24 inches. ... So, then we were kind of creating ourselves a real problem. If you couldn't get a packing wheel in there to pack the ditch, than we had the same problem all over again. Then what we did is, we went back to a little wider bucket that was 24 inches so that we could get this wheel in the ground. And then we said, 'Okay, this is working so well, why can't we go to like a 12 inch ditch?' And it was the same thing - no packing wheel. So, we started to try to build some narrow packing wheels here. And that was a very, very expensive process So, we actually went back to this outfit in California that had made these other style of packing wheels and we started talking to them about a narrower packing wheel. He said, 'Yeah, I don't know why I can't build one of them.' So, we explained a lot of the issues we were having."
"Nobody in the world had ever asked him for one that was eight inches wide to fit onto a 50,000 pound excavator or larger," he continued.
"So, he built his very first one for me kind of as a trial."
These pipelining innovations were really put to the test by Devon.
"We had tons and tons of snow in northern Alberta [that year]," recalled Marc LaBerge, who was Construction Lead at Devon when he met Galbreath, but his now their Leader of Facilities Construction.
The combination of all that melting snow flowing into the water table and conventional methods that meant not all the soil had been returned to the trenches compacted the soil on pipeline right-of-ways, resulting in significant depressions in farmers' fields.
"The oil and gas industry has always had these types of things happening in the past, but they were a lot more sporadic," said LaBerge. "And because there was basically a ten to fifteen year drought in the northern part of Alberta - really, for compaction to happen, you need moisture and you need weight, and we didn't have the moisture. So, it was sporadic. The wet areas would compact, but for the most part things were kind of staying afloat, so to speak, until we had that one season. And then everything started showing up."
LaBerge called Kulba for advice on the problem, initiating Devon's entry into the Partners in Resource Excellence.
"What we did at that point is organize a field tour of some of the problem areas that Devon was having," he continued. "And Randy was invited by Doug Kulba to come out with us as well, because he was going to show us the problems, and Randy was already looking and seeing some of these things at that point. And that's really when I started seeing, working with Randy and working with Doug, about learning, first of all, what we were doing as an industry and how we were installing pipelines, and what the solution was. And the solution wasn't initially ... narrow buckets. Or at least we weren't necessarily thinking completely along those lines.
What we were thinking was, 'Look. There's got to be a way to put that soil back in, because this is part of our problem.' And that was the start of working with Randy."
Devon put the innovations to the test on their Jackfish development in northern Alberta, where they had to lay a series of pipes on a fairly remote and inaccessible right-of-way. Devon won a stewardship award from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers for that project. The work that led to the successful completion of that project also resulted in Galbreath, LaBerge, and Kulba receiving a Shared Footprints Award from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.
Since LaBerge was first introduced to Galbreath in 2007, Devon made these new practices - now known collectively as Innovative Pipeline Strategies - mandatory on agricultural land in May 2008. They began experimenting with them on forested lands in August 2009, a practice that became mandatory in April 2009. Innovative Pipeline Strategies are now mandatory for all of Devon's western Canadian operations.
Few people probably know or understand Galbreath's contribution to the oil and gas industry better than LaBerge and Kulba.
"Randy has gone out of his way to teach other contractors," said Kulba, extolling the virtues of the veteran pipeliner. "That's extremely unique."
"This isn't just a selfish thing," he continued. "This is for the betterment of the entire province and the communities that he works in. And the communities that the contractors work within. So, he's willing to share his knowledge, his experience and his successes."
"That's a real big testament to Randy and how he gives of himself."
"It's always been a privilege working with Randy," added LaBerge. "Randy invested a lot of his time, a lot of money, in these processes that he's developed and perfected. And Devon took chances on their own capital projects to move forward on that and there was risks in that as well. And the government took chances from the standpoint that we didn't know if we were going to be successful or not on the things we tried."
"Really, at this point, I'm getting some notoriety," Galbreath admitted. "Like anything, some of it's good, some of it's not so good. I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of some of the things that we've accomplished."
"I've been in the office either as the manager or an owner since 1989," he continued, discussing how the culture of his business has changed through this process. "And I've never had my employees come in so often as they do now and say, 'I've got an idea, Randy.' That just never happened before."
The difference now is that Galbreath and his Partners in Resource Excellence collaborators have shown the men in the field that their ideas will be heard and valued.
Galbreath deserves a lot of credit for that change.
"What he wouldn't have told you," said Kulba, "is that about a year after we started this process, he phoned me up on a Monday, out of the blue, and he said, 'Doug, for the first time in my life, I'm proud of the work I've done.'"