Back from the North

My time up north this year was interesting.  My first job was doing some pipeline locating.  Our exploration project this year was at the oil sands project inside the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.  Any big oil and gas project has a million rules, protocols and layers.  Working on an active weapons range added a whole new layer of complexity.

Before the exploration project could start, the pipelines running through our exploration area had to be located and marked on the ground.  Yes there are pipelines running through the weapons range!  In fact, there is massive oil infrastructure inside the range which kind of boggles the mind.  We start with a legal description of the lines but must go out through the bush and mark their exact locations.  This is done by using a transmitter that “energizes” the line which we can then detect with a receiver wand.  We then put stakes in the ground and GPS the stakes to build points on the exploration map that future activity would then buffer off of.  I ended up locating and marking out a main National Energy Board north/south pipeline cluster which seemed like a cool responsibility.

IMG_2758Above: At night putting our GPS points on the exploration map and looking tired.
IMG_2768Above:  Me posing in front of my Polaris, a tracked ATV that carries me and a days’ worth of stakes and other gear.  A cool looking machine but I can’t say I enjoyed driving it.  Better than walking though!
IMG_2803Above: Caribou tracks were quite abundant up here but I only caught a glimpse of the animals that made them.  Had better views of some healthy looking wolves and a nice long look at a beautiful lynx though didn’t manage pictures of either.
Once the pipeline locating was completed, I went back to my usual job of surveying the site in preparation for geophysical mapping.  As I mentioned, the complexity of this job was at times overwhelming.  I was required to have 13 different certifications for this work!  We were staying at a remote camp which is a series of ATCO trailers containing a dining area and a series of sleeping pods.  An average start to my day was as follows:
5:30am Breakfast
6:00am Get my gear for the day.  My checklist contains 20 items I must bring out with me for my day.
6:30am Daily safety meeting for all workers on project, get daily update on the target closure list of forbidden areas to be in.
7:00am Begin driving on ice road.
7:05am Show weapons range ID at gate
-radio the weapons range sentry asking permission to enter specific coordinates.  This is difficult as there is a script that can not be deviated from.  Unfortunately there are dozens of people asking permission all over the range that you can not always hear, so it takes real skill to not “walk on” other transmissions or get your call heard.
-radio controlled road means calling all blind corners and kilometers (over 30 different calls on our commute) and listening for any traffic heading at you.  This is brutal with a hundred trucks on the various ice roads and becomes a jumble of calls that are dangerous to mix up least you discover a rig coming head on around a corner with room only for one!  There were 52 oil rigs moving around our project area.
-once at our location we notify the range sentries we’ve arrived at our location
-then a visual check in with a safety rep
-then a radio check with the project medic
-then a radio check telling the medic where I’m  going and hourly radio checks with my location afterwards.
8:30am I’m usually at my ATV and ready to start working but after a white knuckle drive and a million voices in your ear on the radio, I’m pretty wound up.
9:00am Project safety rep pays me a visit and checks I have all the prerequisite safety gear.  Asks for my FLHA, a daily document I must write up outlining the hazards I expect to find in my day as well as an outline of where I’m going and how I’m getting there.  Apart from random “spot checks” from the oil company safety officer, the weapons range officers patrol the roads and pull people over comparing their location with where you’ve told the Range Sentry you are.  On the day I left, someone was banned from the range as they had given incorrect location information on their Sentry call in!
At times it can feel like a well paid gulag as the process reverses itself at the end of the day.  Returning to camp, our GPS data is downloaded and the next day’s daily map is produced from our information.  A cafeteria style supper is served and we retire to our sleeping pods which are little more than a bed, a sink and enough room to change.  There is very little privacy but when you’ve been cold all day outside, it is hard to be ungrateful when you are finally warm.  Hearing the guys three beds over snoring becomes one more thing that gradually erodes your ability to cope. Especially when you have worked for weeks without a day off.  But at least the cramped quarters makes you glad to leave camp each day!
Above:  A geophone is placed into the ground at the location I’ve surveyed.  Hundreds of these receivers are installed all through the exploration area to pick up the seismic waves generated by the vibrators.  The different unground formations change the waves and are recorded at these locations to create an underground map.  The information from hundreds of the phones is transmitted wirelessly to a central command centre. A geomagnetic storm in the ionosphere messed up their network and put this part of the program behind schedule.   The information collected by these probes shows the geophysicist where the oil deposits are. I froze my fingers in the process, but someday the fuel I helped discover here will keep me warm twice over!
Apart from the complexity of the project location, the job was problematic.  The client wanted a level of accuracy not usually achieved in the bush.  Forest tends to scatter GPS signals which puts a natural limit on accuracy.  This job needed better accuracy than that natural limit.  Not impossible, but time consuming to get more accurate signal lock.  This extra time seemed to be poorly anticipated by the higher ups creating a lot of stress that ends up on the plates of everyone on the ground like me.   You can tell yourself that you are doing as much as is possible and to not care what’s being thrown at you, but when you are cold, tired, thirsty and hungry, it can be difficult to remain mentally strong.  Added to the stress was falling oil prices and jobs getting cut as fast as they could stop them.  Our exploration area got cut back twice over the course of the winter.  This takes money out of everyones pocket and stresses everyone out a bit.
Apart from the difficulties, it was an interesting place.  This exploration project is to extend the Cenovus in situ oil sands extraction.  I’ve worked at the Suncor oil sands site where the oil sand are right at the surface and they dig it up like a massive terraforming project.  The Cenovus project is a “SAGD” project where the oil sands are below the surface and they inject steam to liquify the oil from the sand and then pump it up without disturbing the surface.  I’ve heard a lot about this new school oil sands method so it was cool to see it all first hand.  Before I moved out to the remote camp, I stayed right at the main Cenovus site seen below from google.Screen shot 2015-01-29 at 11.47.53 AM
Above:  When I was pipeline locating, I stayed at the main processing plant (our ATCO trailer  city can be seen lower left.  A surreal location not just for its industrial intensity, but it’s high pressure sodium lights that light the entire place up 24 hours a day.  A very bizarre thing to have in the middle of a dark and sunless northern winter!
And now that I am finally thawed out, its time to enjoy the fruits of my labour.  Time to pack the bags and head back down to the desert!
ps Yes I saw lots of fighter jets screaming overhead!
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1 Response to Back from the North

  1. Mike D says:

    I saved this post for QNY. Not disappointed.

    BTW, you really should stop sugar-coating the whole experience. I’m only 13 certifications and a brush with insanity from stealing your job.

    Happy QNY

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