Environmental Refueling Systems Inc. supplies fuel to oil sands firms across northern Alberta

'Total fuel management' firm tackles logistics, long distances and remote worksites

February 05, 2010

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The story of inventors can have many beginnings. Let’s pick one that leads to success. It starts in the cattle country of Uruguay in South America and adds a calamity that brought Scott Van Vliet back to Alberta and placed him firmly on a different road in life.

Van Vliet is now vice-president of Environmental Refuelling Systems Inc., a family firm whose purpose is to make sure its customers’ mining machines in remote worksites never run out of gas. But in 2004, as a graduate of the Montana State University agriculture program, he was involved in exporting cattle from North and South America to markets around the world.

An outbreak of mad cow disease in Canada devastated the cattle industry. Investors started pulling out funding as international markets slammed their doors to meat from the western hemisphere. “I came back to Alberta in 2004,” Van Vliet recalls. “I was done with agriculture.”

He still needed a job. He went to work for his father, Maury, who was a partner in an aviation fuel enterprise called EnviroTankers, and soon settled into a management role.

Maury, son of a University of Alberta sports legend of the same name, already had a solid business career. He worked for Amoco, Enbridge and Oxford Properties before going into aviation fuel.

Another son, Chris, a Canadian Forces pilot who spent some of his holidays flying helicopters to fight forest fires, called the family’s attention to mobile refueling technology. “They needed a fuel source to follow them.” Scott says. “They needed a mobile system.”

Scott was doing some marketing work for the long-proposed, never-built Mackenzie Valley pipeline when he talked to some Nexen Inc. representatives who were involved in the Long Lake oil sands project and were unhappy with the reliability of their fuel supply in their remote camps in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region.

Scott and Maury asked for – and got – carte blanche to design and build a fuel system for the large but hard-to-get-to project, deep in bush south of Fort McMurray. “We started building the system even before the negotiations were done. Maury helped with the new designs that had never been done before.” The result was a 50,000-liter gas tank on skids, featuring a cardlock payment system and its own power supply.

Enter the third partner and president of the family operation, Todd Van Vliet. “When we got operational at Long Lake, we realized the fuel projections were out to lunch. The fuel demand was through the roof,” says Todd.

Maury’s partners in the EnviroTankers aviation fuel firm weren’t interested in taking a plunge to expand operations or try new directions. So a new company, Environmental Refuelling Systems (ERS), was launched in the fall of 2005.

Todd left his Edmonton law practice to join his father and brother in the venture. Maury oversees the company and Todd and Scott handle day-to-day operations, Todd in Edmonton and Scott in Calgary.

“We started at zero and grew at 100 per cent a month for five months. We got stretched pretty thin. Sometimes success can kill a company. Lots of people have sold their way into bankruptcy,” Todd says.

The staff expanded from the three founders to 60 in the winter of 2007. Lean times in the energy industry pared the payroll back to a staff of 36 by late 2009. The concept of the company is to provide worry-free, reliable refueling systems to remote worksites – essentially gas stations on skids backed up by a company-created distribution infrastructure. All the machinery and vehicles used in the energy industry – from pickups to bulldozers to heavy haulers to generators driving pumps and creating electricity for bunkhouses – is worthless without fuel.

“Someone told me ‘Fuel is our breath,’” Todd says. “When a heavy hauler stops at -40 °C because there’s no fuel, there’s a real money issue. When you run out of fuel at a northern camp, it’s a long turnaround time.”

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