Putting rigs back to work

Find out how the Geothermal Collaboration Network hopes to create new jobs for oil and gas workers.

Find out how the Geothermal Collaboration Network hopes to create new jobs for oil and gas workers.

by Caroline Fyvie

Geothermal energy is a hot topic right now as Canada looks towards utilizing our different natural resources to decarbonize coal and reduce emissions. In late April, a number of industry partners came together to form the Geothermal Collaboration Network. The group serves as a think tank and includes organizations such as the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, Clean Energy Canada, the Clean Resource Innovation Network, the Petroleum Services Association of Canada, and Geothermal Canada.

Kevin Krausert, CEO of Beaver Drilling is one of the leaders who advocated for the Geothermal Collaboration Network to be assembled in an effort to put oil and gas workers back to work. “The concept was to create a collaboration network between a variety of groups to advance geothermal opportunity in Canada,” said Krausert. “It was taking the approach that the challenges in front of Canada are so large and severe that we have to put the battles of the past behind us. We have to see where we can collaborate and put rigs back to work. The more rigs that go to work the better it is for all of us is the approach I’ve taken with it.”

Merran Smith, Executive Director of Clean Energy Canada, said that when she was approached to be a part of the network, she was interested to offer her organization’s support. “We were keen to work with them to make people more aware of the opportunity for jobs creating clean heat and power from geothermal energy.”

Geothermal energy can be simply described as using earth’s naturally occurring heat energy. It is not the same everywhere in Canada, but it is believed that the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) has the potential to provide significant geothermal energy.

Fortunately, drilling for geothermal energy has many similar procedures as drilling for hydrocarbons, according to Krausert. “It’s the exact same drilling rig that we use for drilling for oil and gas. When you drill for oil and gas you drill for a hydrocarbon bearing formation. You’ve got a certain selection of rock and it’s either got oil or gas in it… instead of drilling for that, there are certain rock formations that contain hot water.  Extracting these hot brines from porous and permeable formations is the goal. So, it’s basically the same crews, exact same rigs, exact same equipment, exact same people, just instead of drilling for hydrocarbon, you’re drilling for hot brine.”

The reason Canada hasn’t traditionally used geothermal energy is because of the abundance and affordability of natural resources including oil and gas. Supporters of geothermal believe it can eventually become a source of baseload energy for Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Nesjavellir geothermal power plant in Iceland.

Baseload power is described as power generation that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Baseload power plants provide electricity from a constant and reliable energy source, something that alternate energy sources such as solar or wind lack due to their intermittency issues. Alberta and Saskatchewan run their baseload energy from coal plants, and are supplemented by natural gas during peak times of the day. According to Dr. Catherine Hickson of Geothermal Canada, Alberta has significant areas where temperatures are high enough to extract heat for direct-use applications and, in some locations, power production. Hickson said direct-use geothermal applications could include space heating, heating a green house, or providing the energy needed for industrial processes. The main difference between an oil well and a geothermal well, is that a geothermal well has a much larger diameter than a typical oil or gas well, said Hickson. The large diameter is required to accommodate the large electrical submersible pumps required to lift the large quantities to hot brine to the surface. A geothermal well is also constructed to last decades.

Smith said that oil and gas workers have the right skills to make geothermal energy a reality, “The real advantage, not only does Canada have the right geology for geothermal, but oil and gas workers have the right skill set. Alberta has world class drillers, many of whom have lost their jobs in the recent downturn, and so they can find employment in this emerging geothermal sector.”

Krausert reiterated that the skillset of oil well drillers is one that can be utilized for a variety of emerging energy resources, “We have the best trained crews, we have the best equipment, there’s no difference between whether we’re drilling for oil, for gas, for hot brine, for hydrogen, for helium. Any opportunity is one the industry needs to chase to put rigs back to work.”

The main concern with geothermal wells is the cost. According to Hickson, projects would be much more viable (especially ones whose focus is power generation and need hot deep fluids) if the drilling costs could be reduced by approximately 50 per cent to become a commercial option. Krausert agreed that the price needs to be reduced for drilling geothermal wells and mentioned another risk would be drilling and not finding any extractable hot water, similar to a dry hole in oil and gas. “Any means to be able to de-risk drilling is going to be positive and it’s going to put rigs back to work.” Krausert said. He also estimates six to ten geothermal rigs will go to work in 2020.

With risk comes reward, and despite potential challenges ahead, the network is looking forward to meeting regularly to discuss next steps for the emerging industry. “What we’re finding is that there’s a lot of interest and excitement. There is real opportunity for diversifying Alberta’s economy, and re-tooling and leveraging the core competencies that Alberta workers and companies have.” said Smith.

One thing is for certain, the skillsets of Canadian oil and gas workers are unique and vital, and they will continue to lead the country and the world with advanced technology and environmentally conscious energy production.