Alberta drill workers shed lowlife image with Automated Drilling Rig technology

Automation is smoothing drilling’s hard edges

December 01, 2009

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Exit the doghouse, a term used for generations to describe the look and feel of shacks that sheltered paperwork, tools, bosses and occasional visitors next to drilling rig floors. Enter the control center.

Discard old images of harassed crews in filthy overalls, toiling through 12-hour shifts of doing heavy lifting at a brisk pace while in constant peril of losing limbs and potentially their lives unless they dodge equipment in constant motion across greasy steel decks. Conjure up new visions of technicians using computer screens and joysticks to run machinery by remote control, out of harm’s way behind walls of steel and safety glass in climate-controlled cabs.

“It’s awesome,” Jesse Very says. He sports a title created to match the new style of work on rigs to the emerging next generation of drilling hardware. He no longer has to learn to like being called a roughneck, except maybe by peers who retain rights to use old nicknames for industry roles. When Very goes out to well sites from his central Alberta home in Ponoka, he is a rig technician – a formal stature earned by completing an apprenticeship. Showing off advanced equipment like the proud owner of a new car, he says, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s safer. It’s cleaner. It’s friendly.”

Kelly Lentz, a 35-year-old industry veteran who has risen to rig manager, likewise showers praise on the new hardware.

He is a representative of a workforce that is changing as much as the machinery. He does not come from the traditional oilfield labor pool of farmer’s sons that boarded rigs in winter drilling seasons to top up family incomes between harvests. Lentz is making a career. He started on rigs between terms studying sciences in his hometown Edmonton, at the University of Alberta.

“They sent me out on an ADR and I really liked it,” Lentz says. The three-letter term he uses for his workplace is too new to appear in glossaries published for greenhorns trying to understand a jargon-prone, clannish industry. But the ADR – short for automated drilling rig – is making a mark on the oil and gas scene.

Ensign Energy Services Inc., Canada’s second-largest drilling contractor and a technology pioneer, has trademarked the term for its fleet of the new rigs. But the Calgary firm has no exclusive patent on the increasingly technology-studded flavor of oil and gas field operations. An Ensign ADR was chosen by the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors (CAODC) as an example of the trend, to represent the emerging next stage in fieldwork evolution during the 2009 WorldSkills international tournament for industrial trades.

There was no competition in the rig technician category at the blue-collar Olympics, held at Calgary’s Stampede Park in September. The formal trade is just five years old and only exists in Canada. Journeymen demonstrated the evolving machinery and skills it demands for curious audiences drawn from an estimated total attendance of 150,000 at the four-day event.

CAODC reported that 3,600 drilling workers have earned rig technician journeyman status and 4,000 apprentices are enrolled in training available in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. “If someone’s vision of rig work is a rig floor from the 1980s, then we’d like them to see how the job has changed,” said Ensign vice-president Tom Connors. “Technology has really altered the way our crews work.”

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