A Day In the Life of a Booming Oil and Gas Town In the Canadian Northwest

"There's no reason why you shouldn't have a job in this part of the world."

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Sep 2 2015, 11:00am

Hydraulic fracturing—fracking—sites as seen from high above. Image: Simon Fraser University/Flickr

Nichole Peever and I are sitting in the cab of her Toyota truck, heading north on the Alaska highway, away from Airport Road in Fort St. John. Until recently, the area around Airport Road was quite swampy. After it was filled in, it became home to shiny new offices for the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), Shell, Talisman Energy, and scads of other smaller businesses—many of which have what seem to be permanent "Now Hiring" signs mounted beneath their company names.

Peever is 33, just a few years older than me; she and her husband own a quarter-section of land just outside of town, where they are raising their two daughters. She is a safety coordinator for Rogers Trucking, and her husband is a foreman for an oilfield company that operates crude oil storage wells and pumpjacks (the externally visible part of an oil well's reciprocating piston pump, also known as an "oil horse" or a "nodding donkey").

"There's no reason why you shouldn't have a job in this part of the world"

As incomes stagnate across Canada, affecting housing affordability and household debt, small towns like Fort St. John are offering well-paid employment and opportunities for entrepreneurs—albeit, a muddier and more steel-toed type of entrepreneurship than the one you'll find in Silicon Valley. Rogers Trucking, for example, is a thriving multi-generational family business that makes its money via oil and gas contracts, and sets its labour rates in part by considering how much its workers spend on rent. It was founded by Nichole Peever's grandfather, Rod Rogers, in 1960.

Like most businesses reliant on natural resources, Rogers Trucking has weathered its share of boom and bust; still, it's emblematic of a larger trend—Northern Canada as the site of the new blue-collar Canadian dream.

"There's no reason why you shouldn't have a job in this part of the world," Peever told me.

Twelve hundred kilometres—or an hour-and-a-half plane ride—from Vancouver, Fort St. John is now the largest municipality in its area, home to a population of 21,500. It sits squarely in the middle of the Montney formation, BC's largest unconventional shale gas play, its reserves estimated at 450 trillion cubic feet. Over the past 15 years, Montney's oil and gas industry has burgeoned—thanks, in dual part, to technological advances in the extraction of shale gas, and increased demand from Asian energy markets.

In 1990, according to the BC OGC, there were 300 wells drilled; in 2006, there were 1,435.

Pumpjacks in the town of Fort St. John. Image: Gerry/Flickr

In the summer, when oil and gas companies are busy establishing and maintaining well sites, Rogers Trucking hauls gravel. In the winter, when companies are actively producing gas leases, Rogers has diversified into hauling contaminated soil. During the drilling stage of production, water or oil-based fluids (sometimes called mud, or invert) are used to cool and lubricate the drill bit and drill pipe as it burrows its way through clay, dirt, and rock formations, and to flush soil and rock, commonly referred to as cuttings, to the surface. This combination of cuttings and fluid, referred to as "dirty dirt," is contaminated by synthetics, oils, and saline products in the muds, and by pockets of gas or oil in the drilled shale formation.

Drilling in the Montney play can reach depths of 1,700 to 4,000 metres—with additional legs stretching up to an additional 2,000 metres horizontally—and every cubic metre of space created represents a cubic metre of waste.

Curtis Rogers, one of the owners of Rogers Trucking, describes the mixture of cuttings and mud as, basically, "a slurry." Around Fort St. John, most companies mix this slurry with wood shavings. "Everything gets coated and if you mix enough shavings with it, it makes it into a nice solid material that you can actually haul," he said.

While Peever and her husband were both born and raised here, it is these types of opportunities that now draw young people—mostly men—from all across the country. At Rogers, Peever works with truckers from Vancouver Island, Kelowna, and the East Coast, some who relocate permanently to Fort St. John, and others who work a rotating schedule: two weeks in Fort St. John, one week at home.

Peever isn't certain her generation will keep the company going after her father's generation retires

Peever takes me 45 minutes up the road to Tervita Silverberry a secure landfill site that serves as a final destination for the oilfield's dirty dirt. Tervita Silverberry is one of four secure landfill sites in Northeastern BC permitted to accept waste generated by oil and gas production; with a capacity of 6 million tonnes, it accepts a broad swath of solid waste, including drilling waste, hydrocarbon-contaminated soil, flare pit materials, lime sludge, and NORMs, or naturally occurring radioactive materials. Its land totals 640 acres, about a quarter of which is currently permitted for use, and it's currently developing a new cell—a testament to how the market for oil and gas in the area has grown.

Its sister site, on the same location, accepts a range of liquid waste. Peever and I creep up close to the gates to get a good look.

Rogers trucks, Peever says, visit the site daily. But that may not be the case forever. Peever isn't certain her generation will keep the company going after her father's generation retires. Her father, aunt, and uncle all work for the company, but of her generation, she says she's the last one.

"They say if your grandfather starts a company, the grand-kids are the ones that end it," Peever said. "There's so many people that would just kill to be in a position where they could have the job that they've given us, but I don't see it going any farther."

But even if Rogers Trucking disappears, the market is booming. BC signed its first massive liquefied natural gas deal with Pacific-Northwest LNG earlier this year; the BC provincial government, tired of sad-sack liberal arts learners, has increasingly focused on training people for trades. Other truckers and trucking companies, seeking fortune enough to buy single-family homes, will gladly take Rogers' place.