I recently had the opportunity to visit Ft. McMurray, which is located about 300 miles north of Edmonton, in Northern Alberta, Canada. It’s not the northern most point on the road but you can see it from there. The area is a phenomenon because it contains the largest known cash of petroleum in the world. You didn’t know that? Well, neither did I until recently. The amount of oil sand in Alberta is enough-at their current rate of consumption-to provide Canada all of the petroleum it would need for the next 475 years. It’s enough oil to meet the needs of the entire planet for the next 15 years.
As we entered the bustling town of Ft. McMurray, my guide Richard Wassill, business manager of the Plasterers and Cement Masons Union, said, “Can you smell the money yet?” The town is a modern day equivalent to the 49ers Gold Rush, filled with men and women in search of high wages and steady work. The motels were booked to capacity, a line of HD pick-up trucks stretched for miles coming out of the plants during a shift change and you could indeed smell the money in the air.
The oil that brings all of these people to the area is not found in deep underground pools. Nor can one extract it by simply setting up a derrick and drilling down and pumping it out into barrels or piping it to a refinery. No, you’ve got to work a lot harder than that if you want to harvest this massive reserve of “black gold” or as the Beverly Hillbillies also called it, “Texas Tea.”
Fat AlbertaThe petroleum in northern Alberta is found in the top layers of soil down to about 400 meters below the surface. Early natives used the material they discovered in the ground to seal and repair their canoes. In the early 1900’s, it was mined and used unrefined for paving roads, much like modern asphalt. By the ’30s, they found a way to separate the sand and refine it as a roofing product and during World War II the government threw in enough resources to begin high tech refinement as fuel oil and gasoline. This is an expensive process and the science and technology of the ’40s was not yet developed to accommodate profitable production, and after the war demand died down, inexpensive oil from the Middle East, South America and elsewhere filled consumers demand for fuel at reasonable prices.
By the mid-’60s, the processing of turning oil sand into synthetic crude began in earnest. With North America’s political concerns over the security of imported oil, Canada’s oil sands are predicted to become the primary source of oil for both Canada and the United States in coming years.
So how do they separate the oil from the sand? Simple, use hot water and lots of it.
A thick tar-like substance called bitumen has been left by nature intertwined with fine silica sand. This “oil sand” is harvested in large open strip mines. The raw oil sand is shipped to a nearby processing plant, where it is mixed with hot water until the bitumen is softened and can be separated from the sand. The bitumen is then heated to a high temperature until its molecular structure is broken down, allowing it to be separated into three components that can then be blended into a high-grade synthetic crude oil. The sand, a byproduct of the process, is returned to the mines and the area is planted over with trees and shrubs, ensuring the integrity of the land and the survival of the ecosystem.
The house of sand and oilSo what does all this sticky stuff have to do with plaster? The enormous processing plants that are used to separate the oil and the sand, and the plants used to process the bitumen into synthetic crude are erected of structural steel. These structures house miles of pipes, boilers, and vessels filled with highly flammable products. And just as in commercial construction, fireproofing is used to insulate the steel from heat, protecting the production facilities from structural failure in the event of a fire.
“Because these structures are open to the elements, and because the temperatures in Northern Alberta can range from 100 degrees F in the summer to -40 degrees F in the winter, some special procedures are involved to ensure the integrity of the fireproofing,” says Jeff Granberg, president of Park Derochie Coatings Ltd., the largest applicator of industrial fireproofing in the area.
The construction of these projects occurs in three locations. The prefabrication shop is the first step and where the structural steel is lathed with either 3.4 expanded metal lath or heavy welded wire, and where the fireproofing material is applied to all but the connecting ends of the steel. The lath is attached to channel iron that has been welded between the flanges and to ensure it lays flat along the flange, copper pins are spot welded along the flat edge, the lath is then pressed down and the pins are bent over to fasten the lath firmly to the steel.
The folks at Park Derochie Coatings have developed a method of spot welding plastic edged wire corner-aide to sheets of the delicate 3.4 expanded lath that has been pre-bent to a 90-degree angle. This saves a lot of time when workers don’t have to manually tie on miles of the corner-aid by hand. The fireproofing materials are all Portland cement based and the brand and type varies from project to project. The two most commonly used materials are Pyrocrete 241, manufactured by Carboline, and Fendolite TG manufactured by Isolatek. Both materials can be either hand applied or sprayed on with a plaster pump; however, the majority of the work is hand applied to control waste and in the final assembly to prevent overspray on the miles of plumbing and hardware that is attached to the structure.
The pre-fireproofed beams are shipped to one of 10 module assembly yards in Edmonton where they are assembled into large erector set modules and filled with heavy pipes and equipment. The connecting ends of the beams are lathed and fireproofed in place at these yards before the modules are shipped off to various project sites by truck over the 300 miles of narrow road north to Ft. McMurray.
According to George Emery, training coordinator for the Local 222 Plasterers Apprenticeship School, in addition to hundreds of journeymen, there are more than 200 apprentices in Edmonton who are enrolled in courses that have been specifically designed to meet the need of industrial fireproofing in the oil and petrochemical industry. According to building trades sources, the manpower demand related to the construction in this area is expected to increase from its current level of 16,000 to a high of 28,000 construction workers by 2008.
To meet the demand for labor and accommodate this many people, elaborate construction camps have been erected onsite. Accommodations are reminiscent of stateside military installations. Each worker does have their own private sleeping room but they share common restrooms, recreation facilities and mess halls. A battalion of workers are fed, housed and bussed back and forth from the construction site each day, the amount of support personnel to keep this construction army on the move is staggering. Bus drivers, cooks, people to clean rooms and wash linens are in the thousands. Help wanted signs are everywhere and people are showing up every day with their belongings packed into their cars with the hope of making some real money. According the local labor officials, it’s not unusual for a construction worker living in these camps, and working some overtime, to earn an average of $100,000 per year. A young person wanting a financial foothold in life could work on these projects and return home with a substantial nest egg and a wealth of practical experience.
If you read this article, please circle number 330.
Richard Wassill, Business Manager
George Emery, Training Coordinator
OPCMIA Local 222
Jeff Granberg, President
Park Derochie Coatings Ltd.
Lockerbie & Hole
The Petroleum Communication Foundation
Carboline Protective Coatings and Linings (Manufacturer of Pyrocrete 241)
Isolatek (manufacturer of Fendolite)