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Unconventional drilling faces labour shortage

An EnCana drilling pad in the Horn River region of British Columbia

David Ebner

There's been a shortage of skilled workers capable of drilling technically challenging oil and gas wells this winter, even though the level of activity is lower than it was a few years ago, the president of an industry group says.

"In many of those companies, they actually turned work down in the first quarter either because they couldn't get enough people to staff up or they were reluctant to staff up for what might amount to a fairly short period of time," Roger Soucy, who heads up the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, said Wednesday.

Oil and gas producers hire PSAC-member companies to drill and complete their wells - increasingly in unconventional areas that require more time, money and technical savvy to exploit.

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For instance, in the Horn River Basin formation in northeastern British Columbia, wells are drilled horizontally - rather than vertically - to access more of the gas trapped in the shale rock.

In addition, a mixture of sand, water and chemicals is pumped at high pressure to fracture the rock and free the gas.

A conventional well, by contrast, requires a hole to be punched straight down into the ground, with natural pressure in the reservoir taking care of the rest.

For unconventional gas plays, it's not only a matter of finding enough workers, it's about finding the right types of workers as well.

"There's no question that it does require a high level of expertise and skill. Typically those people aren't hanging around street corners," Mr. Soucy said.

Most natural gas drilling in Canada takes place in the winter, when the ground is frozen solid. Activity tapers off when the earth becomes mushy and muddy, in a period that industry types call "spring breakup."

The recent labour tightness is still a far cry from what Alberta's oil patch experienced in the boom 2007 and 2008, when workers were recruited from across Canada and abroad.

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For example, the industry drilled some 25,000 wells in 2007, and is forecast in 2010 to drill about 9,000.

"Certainly we don't have the same pressures that we did two years ago, three years ago with regards to employment. The levels of activity are way down," Mr. Soucy said.

In a report Wednesday, the National Energy Board said it is going to start using the number of drilling days to gauge the amount activity in the sector, instead of simply the number of wells drilled. That's because unconventional gas wells take much longer to drill.

The NEB, the federal energy regulator, said drilling days will increase about 11 per cent in 2010 to 50,512 from 45,659.

"Natural gas is shifting not only in location but also in type which can translate into opportunities for many in the industry," said NEB chair Gaetan Caron.

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