Extending the Drilling Season

Western Canada is world famous for its resource-richness, but easy access conditions are rarely part of the equation in an exploration program. Environmental impact considerations and our weather patterns also contribute to a narrow drilling season. All of these things considered, an exploration program can take years to fully develop.

Extending the drilling season has become critical to accelerating the development of oil and gas resources. Time is money, and saving both improves the overall return on investment. But, poor ground conditions complicates the process of putting any well into production. One of the major stumbling blocks in that regard is soft Muskeg. Seasoned oilpatch veterans can tell stories of entire pieces of heavy equipment sinking in what seems to be bottomless pits of it. This kind of environment also poses a real threat to the personnel who have to work in it.

The vast majority of oil companies face tight time restraints because of access issues. This and the cyclical nature of the drilling industry caused by our four seasons resulted in a committee being formed in 2003. It consisted of representatives from Alberta Energy, British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines, CAGC, CAODC, CAPP and PSAC. Their mandate: To explore various avenues in relation to the Western Canadian oil and gas industry operating in annual and seasonal cycles.

The cyclical nature of the industry presents significant challenges. Low equipment utilization, the retention of a competent field work force, and the potential for increased injury accidents are real headaches. The drilling rig industry is a prime example. A more constant number of rigs kept busy throughout the year is far better than running 700 rigs during Q4 & Q1 and fewer than 100 during Q2. Highs and lows in rig activity cause hardship and staffing trouble. Finding qualified personnel is hard enough at the best of times.

In any event, the final report spawned by this study made some legitimate recommendations that some oil companies have since adopted and put into action. One such recommendation, for instance, suggested oil companies investigate the development and implementation of new technologies that would allow the extension of the drilling season in remote regions. A forerunner in this concept includes the use of access matting.

Paving the Way

The report left little doubt that suitable access matting would help facilitate an extended drilling season. It would allow easier access to remote locations, thus allowing companies to move in earlier and stay longer.

Perhaps the biggest selling point is that temporary matted roads can be quickly installed and removed as a project dictates. Roadways of this kind are very functional in zones with closely-spaced wells and unstable ground soil conditions. Drayton Valley, Edson, Grande Prairie, Grande Cache, High Level, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, and Slave Lake are prime examples of operating areas that largely consist of mud and muskeg.

Interlocking access matting allows heavy equipment easy access to otherwise impassable territory by providing the load bearing strength needed to overcome the problems of over-saturated ground. Interlocking access matted roads are typically 16 feet wide and can extend for miles which can make access to summer drilling projects possible in areas previously thought to be unthinkable.

Investment returns being as they are these days have oil companies actively looking for ways to accelerate their drilling projects. It’s all about getting a well into production as quickly as possible. An interlocking access matting system increases the amount of risk an operator can take. It also allows oil companies into locations earlier and lets them to stay later. At the point most operators have simply shut down, they are able to forge ahead with free access in zones with high concentrations of soft muskeg.

Beyond that, it’s hard to place a dollar figure on improved worksite morale, but the boost is obvious at a site where matting has been installed on the location and lease roads. Certainly, matting helps in reducing lost time injuries and puts money in the company’s bank account sooner. It’s also a solid investment in the intangible things, such as saving wear and tear on the daily life of work crews and company vehicles.

An Evolutionary Science

Over the last couple of years, companies have deliberated over the type of matting deemed most suitable to the harsh Western Canadian climate. Mats of oak and poplar construction were put to the test with limited success. Held together with nails, screws or bolts, these mats had a tendency to break apart easily. When they did, flat tires and costly repairs were the result. The triple-layered oak and poplar mats had a tendency to absorb moisture like a sponge and entrap mud and gravel. Their extreme ending weight added to transportation costs after removal.

Plastic matting was put to use, but with limited success. They broke easily, and rain or cold weather rendered them dangerously slippery. The pins used to hold the plastic matting together have a tendency to lift or, in some cases, burst and propel themselves like bullets. Safety concerns obviously became an issue, plus the fact that the pins were difficult to remove once lodged in place by frozen mud and water.

Little Guy Oilfield Rentals now offers a choice of two types of access matting in it’s rental fleet, the first of which is the patented interlocking “Anchor” brand. Each mat is 8-feet wide and 15-feet long which, when a pair is interlocked, provide a 16-foot wide road. The majority of “other” interlocking matting brands are a full 2 square feet less at 7-feet wide and 14-feet long. Two extra feet of room may not seem like much, but it’s quite a bonus when another vehicle passes. Simply put – the patented design of Anchor manufactured interlocking mats is so simple and effective that they are steadily changing the way the oilpatch is able to go to work.

The second and newest addition to our fleet is the non-interlocking “Tundra” access mat. Fabricated of granulated recycled rubber tires, each mat is compressed and high-pressure molded to form a durable surface that’s ideal for tracked equipment. A heavier shipping and installation weight at 3,900 lbs., each Tundra access mat measures 8-feet wide by 14-feet long and 5.5 inches thick.

Environmental Considerations

Current government regulations are having a big impact on the increase of temporary matting use in ecologically sensitive areas. The fact is that matting effectively reduces the inherent damage of road building and heavy traffic.

The alternative to interlocking access matting is to build a road. This involves hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to investing tens of thousands of dollars on matting. The environmental impact of a permanent road is also quite severe, since it alters the local landscape and allows unwanted traffic direct access into sensitive areas. Increased traffic poses a serious threat and is a big concern to government agencies. Hunters are given easy entry and environmental damage occurs due to human traffic that would not otherwise be there. Wildlife habitats can also be affected.

On the other hand, an interlocking temporary access road is easily disassembled when the job is complete, with negligible and non-permanent damage to the local environment.

Cost Savings

The patented “Anchor Manufacturing” interlocking access matting system has saved oil companies hundreds of thousands of dollars to-date. Crews are able to move in earlier, stay longer, drill and complete projects that otherwise may not have been accessible.

Simply the fact that payback time is realized earlier because the job is put into production sooner, the cost associated with the installation of a temporary roadway matting system is minor relative to the overall expense of drilling the well.

Other tangible benefits are the substantial expense reductions in lost time accidents, as well as those affiliated with the drilling rigs, trucking, heavy equipment, and other associated costs.

Then, there are the intangible benefits, those on which a dollar figure is not so easily fixed. That is, the boost in morale that our interlocking access matting provides. Time and again, our crews have mentioned just how quickly the overall spirit on a location lifts once the field hands know the road or lease is going to be matted.

Putting a monetary value on increased employee morale during these busy times is tough to do. But, simply experiencing the positive morale shift around the worksite may be worth the price of the rental access matting in itself.