Not spring break – there are no beaches, beer bongs, or babes here. No. Spring break-up is a lot less glamourous and definitely not as fun as the similarly named weeklong annual college vacay. So then what is it that we are referring to?
What Is Spring Break-Up?
Spring break-up describes the time of year when the oil industry, specifically across western Canada, slows down due to the melting snow and frost that causes the ground to become soft and muddy.
Why Does Spring Break-Up Take Place?
Mud may not seem a good enough reason to halt an entire industry, but when you are dealing with equipment that weighs as much as oilfield equipment does, a little bit of mud can cause some big problems. As everything melts, the ground becomes softer – even under the roads. If the ground under the roads is not completely stable and heavy trucks or equipment are continuously using the roads there is a high chance that the roads can become damaged due to this weakened integrity.
We all know Canada has too many potholes already, so to combat this issue and attempt to save the roads, the provincial and municipal governments have begun to implement weight restrictions on the roads during this time of year – these weight restrictions are essentially road bans that limit what type of vehicles can use the road. With road bans in place, oilfield companies are often put at a stand still in regards to field world, transportation, etc., as many drilling rigs operate by moving from one location to the next rather frequently.
Not only is there the potential for damage to the infrastructure, but spring can also be a dangerous time for large trucks and equipment to be on the roads – the slippery conditions result in accidents each and every year and the unpredictable state of temporary or remote oilfield roads are too much to risk. These road bans protect the roads and the workers alike. Hence, spring break-up.
How Long Does It Last?
Unlike the similarly named one-week free-for-all college party, spring break-up in the oil and gas industry typically lasts from the end of March or start of April and can go as long as until the beginning of June.
Of course this isn’t written in stone, and we Canadians know how mother nature likes to mess with us from time to time, so spring break-up may very likely start earlier or later and go for shorter or longer depending on the weather that year. It’s difficult to estimate when the pause in drilling activity will start and how long it will last for in an area with such unpredictable weather patterns.
A mild winter and early spring may result in a shorter spring-breakup, whereas a cold, snowy, and wet winter may cause break-up to last longer than usual due to a higher amount of precipitation being held in the ground. Spring break-up truly is 100% dependent on the weather.
Does It Happen Everywhere?
No, not every oilfield operation across North America, or even across Canada, requires spring break-up.
As mentioned before, spring break-up is necessary because of the frost in the ground and the melting snow causing the earth to become soft. This means that only operations taking place in areas that are dealing with this messy end of winter transition into summer need to worry about the subsequent road bans.
More often than not, the areas most affected by spring break-up are the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, where most of the oilfield operations take place in more northern regions that have cold and snowy winters.
There are also areas in the mid-western states (we're looking at you North Dakota) that require spring break-up as well, as this area of the USA sees similar winter seasons to what we get here in the north.
What Happens During Break-Up?
While the road bans are in effect, transportation becomes difficult and rigging productivity is decreased significantly because of the inability to use the roads, however that does not mean that the companies in these areas cease operations all together.
Some companies are lucky enough to have a small selection of rigs that are able to continue drilling throughout break-up because they do not need to be relocated each time they begin drilling. Without needing to use the roads, the road bans are no longer an issue.
Additionally, majority of the work that takes place in office rather than on-site is still very much a go during spring breakup. Research is constantly being conducted to find ways of improving processes, equipment, technology, etc., and the weather, luckily, has no effect on that.
What Do Workers Do During Spring Break-Up?
There are two situations that workers may find themselves in during spring breakup: either you are a full-time contractor or employee, and simply have to wait out the wet weather and road bans, most likely being given odd jobs to do (queue paperwork and spring cleaning), or you are a temporary worker that was hired on a seasonal basis.
If the first, then spring breakup for you is merely a waiting game (maybe time for a vacation to somewhere not affected by the melting snow?) until the terrain dries up and you are back out on the rigs.
If the latter, then you are most likely going to be spending your spring breakup looking for your next job. The oil and gas industry has and always will be a seasonal industry, meaning that higher quantities of workers are needed only at specific times of the year.
Spring is the worst time of year for those of you in the seasonal cycle, but don’t lose hope. The ground will dry, the rigs will start back up, and positions will be popping up like summer weeds.