Ebb Tide Environmental to focus on production services and generating steady work.
After 16 years as a helicopter pilot, Doug Skinner wanted a more grounded lifestyle, so he left his flying career and started an environmental services company.
Skinner’s company, Ebb Tide Environmental, located in Whitecourt, Alberta, Canada, began operations in January of this year. The company received its first truck in April, but spring road restrictions kept it out of Alberta’s oilfields until June.
“Nothing happens overnight; you need patience,” Doug says. “It takes time to start up a business in this industry, because you want to do it right and not skip obstacles and cheat just to get into the business.”
Using its 5-ton combo truck, the company plans to focus on vacuum truck services, tank and vessel washing, spill cleanup, containment cleaning, and several other washing services in the oilsands of Alberta.
Doug and his wife, Marla, know it’s going to be a tough road ahead with the way the industry is currently with low oil prices, but the couple is confident their business will grow. “We want to be a family-run company with a small number of trucks. We’re not here for a good time, we’re here for a long time,” Marla says.
GETTING A START
One thing Doug and Marla have already learned is that it’s difficult to get started in the oil and gas industry. “It’s very tough to get master service agreements in place if you don’t have safety programs and a proven track record in place,” Doug says. “It’s a very up and down industry.”
“There’s a process to getting started, and it takes time and it takes diligence. You have to be able to stick with it,” Marla says. “I think with this downturn in the industry we’ve had to stick to it and slug it out day-by-day and make little bits of progress where we can. Good things will come, and it’ll all come together.”
The first order of business for Ebb Tide Environmental was getting the equipment needed to get started. They talked to truck manufacturers in nearby Edmonton and learned they were all too busy to start building a truck before February or March 2015.
The couple began to look at other options and eventually found Engine & Accessory in Miami, Florida. “I was on the Internet and I found this distributor that builds these trucks. After we did a bit of homework on them and found out what builds they offer, we decided to go that route.”
Construction on the 2015 Peterbilt 337 4x4 combo vac began in July 2014. It was delivered in mid-April of this year. “It took a little longer than usual to build because of it being a 4x4,” Doug says.
The truck, with a Hibon 810 pump and a Cat 660 pressure pump, sports a PACCAR 7 engine with six-speed Eaton Fuller transmission. The truck is mounted with a 1,900-gallon Amthor International tank split into two sections — 700 gallons for water and 1,200 gallons for debris. Two 20-inch manway doors on top and a fully opening rear door help operators clean out the tank. It also has ProTech cabinets for tools and equipment storage.
“I have a few friends in the business who run truck for fluid hauling, steam trucks, pressure trucks and vac trucks,” Doug says. “There’s a lot of larger trucks here used on the completion side of the oil and gas industry, but there aren’t that many of the 5-ton trucks around here.”
The Skinners believe there is just one other truck like theirs operating in the Whitecourt area and a few in surrounding towns. “It’s a niche market; there wasn’t a lot of people doing it. Rather than getting into the big stuff with the big units, we just thought this was more of something we could sink our teeth into, and the opportunity was there,” Marla says.
The single-axle truck will primarily be used on the production side of operations. It’s lighter than most trucks, which means it will have a lesser impact on the already rough access roads in the oilfields.
Ebb Tide’s services are aimed at wells that are already producing and where small containments need to be cleaned. “You can get into chasing rigs with drillings and completions, but right now all that has come to a standstill because of the oil prices,” Doug says. “We wanted to work all the time and look after the customers’ needs, and that’s on the production side.”
SETTING UP FOR SAFETY
To work in the oil and gas industry, companies need to show proof of a safety program. Marla has taken on the role of safety officer for the company and has been spending the last several months getting a safety program in place.
“My background is in social work, so for me this was something totally new,” she says. “I’ve never had to develop a safety program before. There were some courses I’ve had to take, and it was a lot of work and a steep learning curve for myself.”
The safety program includes policies and procedures employees would have to follow, such as pre-inspections on the truck, how to fuel up the truck, how to unload the truck, how to work the job sites, how to dress and many other items. “You have to have some structure in your company for the employees,” Doug says. “We are setting up these procedures and safety guidelines for our employees while they’re representing Ebb Tide.”
Companies that want to operate in Canada’s oilfields must have an approved safety program in place for a minimum of a year. Ebb Tide has been working under Infratech for the last several months to help accomplish that goal.
Infratech, another company in Whitecourt, was founded in 1987 and has experience in combustion and incineration products and manufacturing in Canada and the U.S. The company also offers contract operators in the oil and gas industry.
“It takes time if you’re going to do it right. The safety program takes awhile to get in place,” Marla says. “I really enjoy learning new things, and I enjoy the challenge. It’s been a good opportunity for me.”
With a background in aviation, Doug saw an opportunity to add a unique service to Ebb Tide Environmental and actually started it before he launched the environmental services company. “You have to diversify,” he says. “You have to look at your business doing other things in the oil and gas industry or other industries completely.”
Doug decided to add drones to his list of services offered — the company owns two DJI Phantom 2 drones.
He spent eight of his 16 years as a helicopter pilot flying to and operating remote oil and gas wells. The other eight years he served as general manager of the surveillance department, flying along pipelines for oil and gas companies to provide reports for government compliance.
Another pilot with whom he had previously worked started a drone operation in Vancouver. That company, Griffin UAS, uses drones for agricultural and construction work. “I told him I was looking at that for the oil and gas industry because of my background in looking for the leaks and pipeline failures and spills from the air,” Doug says.
The drones can’t be flown outside of visual sight and can only be flown at a certain height and in specific areas, so using them for pipeline surveillance isn’t an option yet. The drones would be used to provide aerial views of spill and cleanup sites.
“The drone would climb straight up, take a photo and map the lease site,” Doug says. “We would be able to show the customer before photos of where the spill or cleanup site is and then do the work on the ground and send the drone back up and get after-shots for their records.”
Doug says it’s a valuable tool to have, and one that many service providers in the area don’t offer. “It’s a big thing. Oil customers will use that to see where the spill is going and if the cleanup was successful.”
GOING FOR No. 1
With much of Ebb Tide Environmental’s organizational infrastructure in place, the real challenge — securing the work to keep the operation going — is just beginning.
“We’ve gotten a lot of advice from friends and others in the industry,” Doug says. “Lots of people in the community have supported us in terms of helping us get started.
“I would like to see us become a No. 1 call for the area for cleanup, from start to finish.”