I had agreed to be available to work a shutdown that was "from mid July to September".
Not knowing if or when that call would come July consisted of near panic work to get the shop/studio to where I could feel comfortable with leaving it for the winter if it came to that.
Once we had more details there was a rush trip to Edmonton to take care of the union stuff and then back to Meadow Lake to work to the last minute before heading north to Ft. McMurray and beyond that to Albian Sands. It was the first time living in a camp since the early 1980's, but it hasn't changed much. You can see where they are cutting corners with the general slowdown in the oil patch. Some people staying in the camp are upset by it, but it doesn't bother me. The food is still edible and I don't have to cook it and it is better cooking than mine in any case.
After a few days I volunteered for night shift when they asked who would work it. It is cooler at night. The mosquitoes are more numerous than during the day until the middle of the night on those nights that it gets cool enough to slow them down. The whole experience brings back memories. Some of them good.
Juanita and I are both grateful that this is a short term event and not likely to be repeated too often, if at all. We are really grateful that during my work life most work was close to home and didn't involve extended times away living in camp. The duration of the shutdown is a bit up in the air. There will be time to get the rig ready to go south. Hopefully there will be enough time that exercise will not be done in a panic.
You may have heard of the tar sands or the oil sands. Think of them as the world's biggest natural oil spill and the efforts of the companies reclaiming them as performing an environmental service. Be advised that not everybody might share that view. You may have heard of "dirty oil" a term based on the amount of energy used to extract the oil from the sands that it has been in for a geologic time. That may be a matter of perspective.
The first issue affecting perspective is whether carbon dioxide is "dirty" or not. Increasing numbers of climate scientists are concluding that carbon dioxide is not an issue with respect to contributing to climate change.
The second issue is whether you look at the "energy" used for extraction on its own or as a part of the entire picture from extraction to end use. If carbon dioxide is a problem and you compare all the sources of oil then even "clean" oil generates far more carbon dioxide in being used than any "dirty" source genrates in its extraction. When you look at total life cycle carbon dioxide generated including that produced by burning the stuff in your engine then all sources are within about ten percent of each other. Water consumption is an issue, but each year the extraction plants use less and less water.
Lac La Biche Mission
Notre Dame Des Victoires (Our Lady of Victories) Mission was started in 1855 west of the present town site of Lac La Biche. On my way north for the first work tour I stopped there long enough to eat my sandwich and have a bit of a look around. It takes about an hour and a half to do the tour properly so there is is about an hour and twenty-five minutes left for some future visit.
Mining of Oil Sands, Then and Now
In times gone by a bunch of oil got left in sand and gravel deposits on top of a layer of limestone in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Then over more time that deposit was covered by muskeg and other overburden. I am working at an oil sands mine and extraction plant an hour north of Ft. McMurray. One starts to get a feel for the size of the deposits when one drives home for the weekend and passes operations two or three hours south working other parts of the same general oil deposits.
In simple terms (the only ones I am capable of with this topic) getting oil out of oil sands involves mining (removing overburden and digging up the oil sands from the top of the limestone layer), extraction (mixing warm water with the oil sands and skimming off the thick heavy oil, called bitumen) and upgrading (turning the bitumen into light crude oil). Not all plants do the third step - they may ship the bitumen to their own or an other company's upgrader facility. Where I am working they mine and extract and ship the bitumen to their own upgrader closer to Edmonton, Alberta. Fine by me. The extraction process is dirty, but has none of the nasties that upgraders have.
There is an oil sands interpretative centre on the south side of Fort McMurray that has indoor and outdoor displays. Syncrude, one of the oil sands pioneers has a roadside display of some of its retired equipment at its site several miles north of Fort McMurray.
The dramatic and interesting stuff is the mining and the size of the equipment involved to make the effort economic. Draglines and bucketwheels have retired from service and been replaced by big trucks.
The trucks are huge, but your eyes and brain tend to bring them down to manageable proportions that understate the true size one is dealing with. One person was telling me that he was really impressed with the size of a road grader used on the site where he works and how much bigger it was than the one his childhood buddy's father drove. However, when he was riding in one of the mining trucks as part of his mine drivng safety training they passed that grader and he was looking down on it and its size was inconsequential. Then he realized how big the truck really was. They have been known to crush a pickup truck like a pop can with fatal consequences for the pickup truck driver and no noticeable bump for the mining truck driver.
One plaque at the Syncrude site describes the situation as it was a few years back:
THE DRAGLINE AND THE BUCKETWHEEL displayed in this area were used by Syncrude to mine oil sand when the operation commenced in 1978.
Draglines dig the oil sand from the deposit and place it in long piles called windrows. Bucketwheel reclaimers then scoop up the oil sand and drop it on conveyor systems which move it into the extraction plant.
While Syncrude continues to uses this technology today, the draglines and bucketwheels are gradually being replaced by a fleet of large trucks and shovels. In fact, truck-and-shovel mining was introduced to Syncrude in 1980 for overburden removal and in 1984 for oil sands production. Each shovel can place 80 to 100 tons of oil sand into a truck with a single scoop. The trucks carry loads as large as 400 tons. The complete transition to truck and shovel is expected to be completed by 2006.
I am staying at Athabasca Lodge. It is the plebian version of the Beaver River Executive Lodge which is a parking lot away. It is in a forest of dead trees on the banks of the Athabasca River about a fifteen minute bus ride from the work site and the accommodation suits me fine. It's warm, dry, and comfortable enough. My feelings are not shared by the people who have been downgraded from the executive lodge by their employer's cost cutting, but I didn't know a "real chair" was an option. I don't share their sense of loss.
To get an idea of the room, check out the pictures on the internet of Karlheinz Shreiber's new digs in a German prison. Much the same. I have more storage. He has a sink and a toilet in the room and a shower down the hall. I only have the sink and the toilet and shower are in an adjoining room and are shared. I have been told somewhat wistfully that the Beaver River Executive Lodge has private, not shared, bathrooms. My co-tenant seems to be on dayshift and on opposite weekends off so there has been hardly any interaction and no conflicts so I am happy. Oh! Back to Herr Shreiber - I am free to come and go as I please. Priceless!
I am in wing 13. In somewhat misplaced superstition there is a wing 13 and a wing 15, but no wing 14. Odd.
Life Occurs Every Second Weekend
On night shift the ten days "On" consists of Work-Sleep-Eat-Repeat. With day shift the eat is between work and sleep.
Life occurs on the every second weekend and the four days off. The first such weekend was mostly raining so it was a time of relaxing.
The second weekend off involved putting up five section high scaffolding (thanks Nick and Debbie!) - a mix of rented added to our owned pieces to enable us to add another three feet to the chimney. Also the wheel bearings got greased and the brakes got checked on the fifth wheel trailer. There are more pictures. They are on the other camera so will have to wait for a reunion with it before they make it to the web site.
Oh! And we had our combined, birthday party for Juanita and me. Our sixty-mmmth. Nick, Becky and Zeke were there for that. We also tried out the Mexican Train game for the first time. I know some people who will enjoy it and we can tolerate it.
My birthday gift was an MP3 player so once back to camp I spent many happy 99 cents downloading songs for it. One disappointment is the singer who can't seem to pronouce the final consonant of many words and sings "how gray is our gaw". No big deal until you start listening for it and then you can't appreciate anything else about the song. I think that track will be replaced by somebody's with proper diction.
During the following weekend ( a work weekend for me) everybody celebrated Kohen's second birthday. I called and talked at him, but he doesn't talk back. Despite his silence he does seem to look forward to my calls to Juanita. When she is talking on the phone to somebody else he insists it is Grampa and is quite put out if he doesn't get his turn to listen.
On my last weekend off - the one preceding my final ten day stretch before I slipped back beneath the waves of retirement again - we continued with our preparations for the annual southward migration. I sealed a passage way apparently used by mice to go up past the wiring from the taillights, washed and waxed the front of the rig and organized a couple of storage compartments. Also we moved a couple of pieces of furniture out of storage and into our shop/studio and had our first dinner where everybody could sit around a single table inside. More room than in the rig and, unlike the picnic table, no bugs.