They say that April showers bring May flowers, but in the oil patch, spring brings drilling activity to a near standstill in much of Alberta, in what is known as “spring breakup.”
It may seem counter-intuitive that oil and gas companies are far busier in the winter months. But in fact, “most industry players plan to complete activities such as drilling and pipeline construction before spring hits,” says Breanna Sinclair, regional coordinator of surveillance and enforcement in the Alberta Energy Regulator’s (AER’s) Slave Lake Field Centre.
“This ensures their equipment doesn’t get stuck in the mud, mix up the soil, and damage wetlands.”
Companies drill wells and construct pipelines in winter because the frozen ground allows them to build temporary roads and water crossings to reach sites that would otherwise be impassable during warmer months.
“Operating in frozen conditions typically has less impact to the environment because heavy equipment does not sink into the land because of how hard the ground is when it is frozen,” Sinclair says.
Depending on the weather and the part of the province, spring breakup happens anytime from March to May.
Although the AER doesn’t make operators stop drilling activity, there are requirements industry must follow to ensure sensitive environments are protected. For example, almost all roads leased by industry on public lands have a condition that activity must be suspended when the ground becomes too soft, as there is an increased risk of damage to soil or nearby water bodies.
In addition, municipal laws and licensee agreements ban vehicles over a certain weight from travelling on some roads. Because spring in Alberta is unpredictable, the timing and bans for trucks and machinery are determined by how muddy the winter roads become, which makes moving bulldozers and heavy equipment a tough slog.
Some rigs are moved from oil and gas sites before the breakup and resume summer drilling once the ground is dry. Other rigs will start work again the following winter, and the seasonal drilling cycle starts anew.