Harvesting crude information

Gordon Legge February 21 1983

Harvesting crude information

Gordon Legge February 21 1983

Harvesting crude information


Gordon Legge

The bold, blue Prairie sky is clear. The air is still and quiet, except for the occasional scream of metal scraping against metal from an oil rig planted on a frozen piece of farmland near Big Valley, Alta., the scene of a rumored oil find about 200 km northeast of Calgary. The well is designated a tight hole—it is off limits to outside personnel, and all information is confidential. Special precautions, such as a plywood hoarding around the testing site, have been taken to conceal the area from prying eyes.

The security measures are not insurmountable to Doug Abell, who sits unnoticed just a short distance away. He peers at the rig through a 20 x 50 power Bushnell spotting scope mounted on the door window of a blue pickup truck. As he watches intently under the glare of the midday sun, his eyes catch the sudden spill of a dark liquid over the side of the narrow 10-m-high natural gas flare stack next to the rig. The overflow of oil ignites, filling the frosty air with the sweet smell of crude. Abell grins to himself and notes the occurrence in his day log. His boss will be pleased.

The 31-year-old Abell, an oilfield scout, is paid to spy on oil rigs. He is

employed by A.J. Webb Scouting Consultants Ltd. —“The Eyes of the Oil Patch”—one of a dozen scouting firms working in the province. His vocation includes him in the netherworld of industrial espionage that is commonly —and openly—practised at oilfields around the world. Ever since Gulf Canada Resources Inc. brought in a prolific oil well at Rumsey, south of Big Valley, in August, 1982, the area has been alive with scouts who keep tabs on the 25

or so rigs that have -

punched through the ground. There have been a couple of other sizable finds since the Gulf discovery, but several dry holes were also drilled.

As a result, the scout’s information is of crucial importance. If it is accurate, his client firm will be spared the cost of drilling an exploratory well. The information will also provide a good indication as to whether the client’s firm should get involved in the play, either on its own or in a joint venture. Notes Abell’s boss, Art Webb:

“For a $25,000 scouting bill, you can get $1 million worth of information.”

Webb, 42, is as independent as he is outspoken. If there is one thing that irritates him more than Big Government, it is the unsavory reputation that scouting suffers. “There is a legal way and an illegal way of doing it,” he explains. Still, there might be some legitimacy to claims of misbehavior. Stories abound of scouts who have stolen drilling reports from rig sites and of roughnecks who have dealt crude justice to scouts sneaking 8 around areas that were I off limits to them. Webb

1 recalls the day many s years ago when a couple s of club-carrying toughs

approached him on the edge of a rig site: “We’re looking for some scouts,” one of the roughnecks said. “Seen any around?” Webb reached into his truck and pulled out his rifle (kept as a precaution against bears) and replied: “We’re looking for rig hands. Seen any around?” “No, we’re tool pushers,” said the roughneck. “Then you can’t drink with us,” said Webb.

Few oilmen will deny that misdeeds do occur. In Big Valley there are even rumors that the public telephone at the

Big Valley Inn was

bugged last fall. But most firms stay within the letter of the law. “I have an aversion to jail,” notes Webb. Consequently, the 18 scouts covering the action across Alberta for Webb’s firm harvest their information by focusing their binoculars on the rigs.

On Abell’s recent oil rig stakeout near Big Valley, his trained eye _ detected a problem the o moment he saw the oil

2 spilling over the flare stack. Underground £ pressure had caused an 5 overflow at the sepa-

rator, forcing some oil up the stack. If everything had gone right, the oil would have flowed unseen into surge tanks sitting next to the rig. The incident was unfortunate for the driller, but an unexpected bonanza for Abell.

For the scouts, the long hours of surveillance can be profitable. When the oil industry is active, a scout can earn $300 to $350 a day, occasionally working three to four weeks without a break. Still, although the industry is beginning to recover after an 18-month slump, a scout will not earn the $80,000 this year that he made during the 1970s. Abell, who says he makes only about $10,000 in a slow year, was earning $75,000 three years ago. Out of their income must come expenses—lodging, food, gasoline and truck maintenance—which can be high in remote locations, sometimes accounting for as much as 50 per cent of a scout’s earnings. And the hours are long and tiresome. The day Abell spotted the oil overflow, he and his dog, Sam, a twoyear-old Australian Blue Healer, had been keeping their vigil since 9 p.m. the night before. To protect their incomes from the vagaries of the oil business, many scouts resort to supplementary endeavors. Abell, a six-year scouting veteran, farms near Carstairs, 60 km north of Calgary.

Not only has the Big Valley find meant a boom for oilmen, it has also lent a measure of prosperity to area residents. Big Valley, a thriving coal town of 2,000 in the 1920s, now has only 365 permanent citizens. An abandoned railway roundhouse, stacked with hay, attests to the town’s former glory. Nodding oil pumps dot the landscape around the town, recovering oil from shallow pools established three decades ago. Small armies of seismic crews crisscross the snow-covered fields, stringing cable. While farmers collect hundreds of dollars for access to their fields, their sons go to work on the rigs. Business at the 15-room Big Valley Inn has doubled since last fall, forcing owner Pat Loria to postpone his winter holiday in the sun. Business is brisk and boisterous as well in the inn’s bar. Tiffany, a petite, 22-year-old Toronto woman who earns $750 a week to reveal it all, finds the oil talk a bit tedious. “That’s all I ever hear,” she complains. “Oil rigs when I go to bed at night, oil rigs when I get up in the morning.”

But oil rig talk has brought a good life to men like Art Webb. A Grade 11 dropout, Webb, who remains unaffected by his success and has not changed since the day 15 years ago when he went to work with his binoculars, is now worth more than $1 million. “The Oil Patch has been good to me,” he says, dragging on a Colt cigar. “It’s like any other business. You get out of it what you put into it.”