Battling Frigid Weather to Keep the Gas Flowing

Things have warmed up in Alberta but it was a drastically different story in December and through the early part of 2022. From December 24 through the first week of January, it was cold, bitterly cold, with overnight lows regularly pushing minus 30 degrees Celsius and only very hardy souls chose to venture out even in the daytime. 

During this stretch, family and friends gathered for Christmas and New Year’s to celebrate. It’s thanks to the many men and women who worked tirelessly behind the scenes that the turkeys were cooked and houses stayed warm, primarily from natural gas.

At Pieridae, we are a smaller company but we produce enough gas for about 2,000 homes every day. So, what we do and what many, many more companies in the province do is to provide Albertans with the peace of mind that when they turn on their thermostat or oven, the natural gas will be there.

It really is something we all take for granted, especially on those bitterly cold days when it is a challenge for field operators to just keep the machines and equipment running so we can get that gas.
Operators like Charlie Ludewig and Ken Rouleau know this very well. Charlie has been with Shell and now Pieridae since 1979, while Ken has been working in the field for Shell and Pieridae since 1980. Both work in the Waterton/Pincher Creek area of southern Alberta and support the safe operation of a large-scale gas plant and the assets that support it.

It goes without saying Charlie and Ken have a vast amount of experience and have seen it all. They experienced first-hand the bitterly cold conditions over the holidays this year, but have seen mother nature deliver a much harder punch.

“No, we've seen much worse,” says Charlie. “I think the last couple years we've had eight weeks or so of colder weather. But, yeah, brutal conditions when it's cool and we've got these high winds down in this part of the world.” 

“We have a lot of power issues with the really cold weather,” adds Ken.  “Issues with power lines and power related things. We have quite a few compressors running on electric drives and it's a struggle sometimes to get to those facilities and do any repairs with the drifting snow on roads as well as the bitter cold.”

Both men know that bad weather is part of the job. But even this reality does not always prepare them for conditions where they are not even sure they can get in and out of some areas in the field.

“We’ve run into that a number of times over the years,” says Ken. “Blowing snow and it’s very, very heavy. I followed a D7 CAT bulldozer down the road a few times. That's the only way you could get around in the canyons, there's too much snow for graders. If we get a three-foot snowfall, it's fine if a CAT is in front of you. But as soon as the wind whips up, everything can be plugged up solid. We've had outages for a couple days. Even some wells, we can't visit them for up to a week or so because of those conditions. And it does happen quite often.”

When it does happen, how do Ken and Charlie deal with it? What happens to production at the gas plant and getting natural gas to the public if both men can’t get into remote sites to do repairs? 

“There's been a time or two also that we've ended up staying at the stations down south because we couldn't get back out,” recalls Ken. “So, you pretty much need something with you all the time, Cat or grader or whatever. Equipment is down, we know it and we just basically have to wait until we can get those roads open to get into those sites and get things restarted. And hopefully, we're not seeing pipelines freeze up. We see that quite often as well.”

One might think that if the only way you can get to work is to be behind a large grader or bulldozer that’s clearing several feet of snow in front of you, why are you even out in those conditions? For Ken, Charlie and other operators, that choice is not an option. 

“I remember lots of times getting called out when something goes wrong. Kenny and I head out and you get your head stuck out the window looking for the white line on the edge of the road or the other guy's trying to navigate the road and you can't see anything. We've had to stay there at the compressor station, no choice. It was really bad sometimes in the past when we've hunkered down at the station for a couple, three days until the dust all settles and the same with the people that do our grading. There's been a number of years where those guys on the graders and Cats are going 24/7, 24 hours a day.”

“They'll have guys come out at night to relieve them,” adds Ken. “And if we say, ‘Hey, we can't get to here, we can't get to there,’ they'll work during the night to try and then get us there. We haven't had the dangerous situations or pipeline leaks or anything, but that's where we deal with them, talk with them, assess the situation. And if we have to double up on people doing the road work, we make that happen - bring in other contractors other than these guys that are here to help get us through that hurdle.”

“Blowing snow and it’s very, very heavy. I followed a D7 CAT bulldozer down the road a few times. That's the only way you could get around in the canyons, there's too much snow for graders. If we get a three-foot snowfall, it's fine if a CAT is in front of you. But as soon as the wind whips up, everything can be plugged up solid." - Ken Rouleau

Pieridae’s Operations Manager John Emery recalls those frigid days in the field as an operator, when his hands got so numb they wouldn’t function. He says he had an expectation that production would drop during the recent cold snap. In fact, one industry colleague told him their company saw production fall by 20%. Yet at Pieridae, we saw just a half per cent decline. John credits all field employees, including Charlie and Ken, for this huge accomplishment. 

“It goes to the abilities of the operators plus their skill and foresight,” says John. “Leadership has the comfort knowing our employees know how to to handle these issues. They do things to take control of a situation it before it takes control of you.”

During the recent Christmas holidays when many of us were in our warm houses having an eggnog or pouring extra gravy on our second helping of turkey and mashed potatoes, Ken and Charlie were outside in the frigid cold, up at all hours pulling extra-long shifts.

“Sometimes we'll be out there 26, 28 hours in a row just trying to keep things going and you don't want to bother anybody else because they're enjoying Christmas, so as a pair, as partners, we do what we can to keep things running,” says Ken.

And that was not just a one off, both have worked these hours many times in their careers. So how do you stay awake for that long, keep your focus and remain safe? 

“Well, usually you're sitting in the truck waiting for the grader to clean the roads, so you have a snooze and then catch up to them,” says Charlie. 

Ken agrees. You catch a bit of sleep when you can.

“But a lot of times you're pretty focused on trying to keep things running and difficulties with the cold and the wind and things like instrumentation freezing up. And it's not only one area, you might be 20 miles away from more problems. You and your partner might be split up just trying to keep things going.”

It's not that both men won’t ask for help. When they need, they certainly do. But when that help just can’t get there, Charlie says you go for it and get ‘er done because if you don’t, the consequences can be quite severe. Ken supports that.

“Certainly, yeah, and we had that happen over Christmas there where we had one of our 10-inch pipelines start to freeze up and we jumped on it right away. Charlie and I worked for the day to try and get it going again and we couldn't. And then we had another team come in and we came back that evening and we were able to resolve the problem. But it took a lot of effort in the cold weather and wind, steaming some of the flare lines out, pumping methanol into the system so we could free some of the hydrates. It's a team effort.”

Now, there will be readers wondering what’s a ‘hydrate’ that ken jus mentioned? And, what’s that ‘10-inch line’ he was talking about? 

“We have pipelines that bring the natural gas from the wellhead into the compressor sites and then we boost that pressure up and downstream in this 10-inch pipeline. It's actually pumping raw gas, our gas, to the plant 10 miles away to get processed,” says Ken.

“The biggest thing is pressure and temperature,” adds Charlie. “Your gas has to be heated so coming from the well site the gas comes out of the well itself, it's heated then goes to the compressor site, which, as Ken says, boosts up that pressure and the temperature. Then, it continues on through the pipeline and if the pressure or the temperature changes where it comes out of the ground at the next junction, if that gets too cold, you start getting a hydrate in there and the hydrate can form quite easily. The higher the pressure, the higher the temperature has to be.

“A hydrate looks almost like a slushie at 7/11, and then it can actually go to being like a solid ice plug.”

“It takes a lot of pressure behind it to push it through the pipeline,” adds Ken. “And that's where, with methanol and other things, we're able to try and loosen them up and mitigate that problem. But once things lock up solid with a hydrate, that's when you have lots of issues and you want to try and prevent that if you can.”

Charlie points out the gas we are talking about here is not the same as what you put in your car.

“This is in the gaseous state, it's not a liquid state. It's in a vapor state. So, if this gas is traveling down the pipeline, you want to maintain at least three to four meters per second of velocity. If that velocity starts to drop off, then the liquids in the gas will start to drop down and gather in the hollow spots, going up a hill, at the bottom of a hill or a coulee or something like that. And then this is where we start getting the slush starting to happen. So, you have to stay on top of your line – watch your pressure and line temperature. You got to keep an eye on it.

“If an operator sees something change, then they either pump more methanol into the pipeline, flush the line and pig it, whatever the case may be, to keep things moving along. And as the product slows down, well, then you’re more apt to have the ‘slushie’ start to happen. And if you don't get on it right away, you'll end up with a solid plug and then you’ve got a real problem because now the pipeline’s locked up and that could end up being in a long fight. We went through that here. We had just about a month and a half of a pipeline down because of that happening.”

The pipelines workers at the Waterton Gas Plant deal with are built in mountainous, hilly areas - up and down, around corners - they are not straight. So, that's where you get that liquid build up – places like the hollows, as Charlie mentioned. That's where your liquids drop out, creating the perfect scenario for a solid blockage inside the pipeline.

If that happens, what are some of the ramifications for the gas plant itself? What are some of the worst scenarios that can happen when the plant is not getting enough product or when you're dealing with a blocked line? Ken Rouleau explains.

“Well, they scramble a bit at a plant when they're not getting all the gas they need. They've got to change the way they process the gas and slow things down. They like to stay on a steady pace in there so everything's smooth. And it does give them a bit of a hiccup when we do lose big volumes in some of these bigger lines.”

“You could actually shut them down as well,” adds Charlie. “There's a certain amount of gas they’ve got to have in order to keep the place going. And if enough of it tanks, you could actually shut the plant down.”

And if the plant does go down, you may not be getting enough gas to your customers who really need and rely on it. As well, when a gas plant stops operating, it’s not just a matter of flipping the switch to get things running again.

“At the very least, it’s 24 hours before you’ve got good production because they have to start everything up again and that is a lot of work,” explains Charlie. “So, if we see a major wreck like that, it can be a long time before everything's back to stability again, the way it was. And this can happen from not just the hydrate, but when Ken was talking earlier about power issues, we have a lot of machines that are running on power. If you don’t have power, you can’t push the gas to the plant. It can be a pretty tragic thing. And if you get in an event where two or three places shut down, they're scrambling in the plant pretty hard to stay running. We've both lived through it where the power issue hits the plant. Years ago, the plant went down, the field didn't, but the plant did. And then they were down for a long time because as they went down, they encountered more and more problems.”

Before we move on, Charlie mentioned ‘pigging’ the lines. For the record, he was not talking about a ‘pig’ that we get our Easter ham from! These ‘pigs’ are foam or hard, rubberized, bullet-shaped objects pushed through pipelines with pressure to keep them clean. 

“Well, of course, there are different pig sizes for different lines,” explains Ken. “The pigs we use in the 10- inch line we’ve been talking about, we call them a multi-cup pig and they have round cups on them and they're, I'm going to say, what, two feet long? Roughly. And we put these into the pipeline to push liquids or a ‘slushie’ out. We ‘pig’ most of our pipelines on a regular basis as well.”

“And depending on what the situation is, if you have a hydrate in there or you suspect there's a hydrate in there, you're going to want to try and have a little bit of communication between both ends of where your pipe is,” says Charlie. “You don't want to just say, ‘Okay, I'm plugged up, we're going to fire this pig in there,’ and then you're really going to get it stuck. Once you have some communication, then you can maybe put a pig in and you put a bunch of methanol ahead of it to try and herd the stuff through. As Kenny said, we do pig our lines on a regular basis. There's a crew here that's all they do five days a week – pig pipelines to mitigate exactly this happening. To move that liquid out of the low spots, out of the creek bottoms and keep stuff moving along.”

There's a high level of knowledge needed to do this type of work. You really hone those skills when you’ve been through as many situations as Charlie and Ken have for the past few decades. Problems will come up but, instinctively, you know what to do.

“In the wintertime it's probably a daily thing,” agrees Ken. “Lots of times there's many issues and more so this time of year in the wintertime and springtime when we get the thaws and stuff like that in the ground, it makes it more difficult. So yeah, there's definitely lots of times that you'll be dealing with this – whether it’s midnight or three o'clock in the morning.”

“Ken was on call during Christmas and that's exactly what they were doing,” adds Charlie. “They were out here pumping methanol, jockeying gas down different lines to try and put it down a lower pressure line to get that flow happening, to get rid of that slushie, get things moving. And he spent a lot of hours doing that and another crew came behind him. So yeah, it doesn't happen every day but here again, like I say, we got to stay on top of the game and watch everything. And sometimes you don't have much room for error, if you miss it, you're in trouble.”

Both have grown accustomed to dealing with extreme weather and serious situations over the years, but there was one particular time Charlie recalls when an avalanche caused a lot of issues for the pair. A large compressor station - 100 feet by 300 feet, with 24-foot high ceilings - was walloped with snow one winter.

“It filled the whole compressor site, blew the doors in. You had four feet, five foot deep snow inside the compressor building packed hard. Now, these buildings are big so we spent five days cleaning it up to the point that we could actually run it.”

“If I can add to that, most of our well sites are in valleys,” says Ken. “We've got some pretty steep slopes in behind these sites and compressor buildings so avalanche protectors are a must for the wellheads. We see these condition quite often during the winter months and it can build up on the slopes and then it just releases whenever mother nature lets it. We're kind of at the mercy of that with all the snow and frigid temperatures. When I talk to my wife, she would look out the window and say, ‘I don't even want to go out there and shovel the sidewalk’!”

It’s clear both Charlie and Ken take great pride in the work they’ve been doing for more than 40 years. Pulling 26, 28-hour shifts, battling blizzards and six foot snow drifts –the ‘silent heroes’ of the natural gas sector. They simply do their job – day in, day out – helping get us the natural gas we need, without too many people noticing...

“Yeah, well, we've been here a long time,” Charlie says. “We show ownership and pride in the part of the field that you run and try and look out for the other guy’s area. I come from the compressor site end of it so I'm down where the big sites are, where they are training new guys that are coming along and Ken has been there, too. He has good on the wells and the compressors. We both have a lot of pride in what we do. And we try and make sure that things are working right so that we don't have problems.”

To learn more about the situation we faced a couple of weeks back and also some detail on Alberta's natural gas industry, click on the links below: