CALGARY — When it comes to protecting thousands of remote oil and gas well sites scattered across Alberta’s Prairies and foothills, RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters is more concerned about crack addicts than vandals.
The 854 crimes reported at those sites in the first 10 months of 2016 have already exceeded the number in all of 2015, RCMP statistics show, an increase some are blaming on Alberta’s economic slowdown.
Almost all of the reports have been related to theft, said Peters, adding only 41 are labelled tampering or vandalism.
He said some of the most unusual reports concern stealing “sight glasses,” long thin glass tubes attached to chemical tanks to provide an external visual gauge of how full the tanks are.
“They make crack pipes and meth pipes out of these sight glasses,” Peters explained.
“It’s a clear glass tube that’s the right size to be able to shape it with heat … Some of them are around three feet long so they take them out and break them into chunks and use the ones they get to make meth pipes and crack pipes.”
He said some of the thieves, who have been caught, are people who work in the oilpatch, but the use of the tubes is common among drug users in areas with nearby oil and gas activity. He said statistics don’t specify how many of the tubes were stolen this year.
Travis Ferguson, director of environment, health and safety for Calgary-based Encana Corp. (TSX:ECA), said his company has had dozens of sight glasses stolen in recent years, at a hefty cost. When the tubes are removed, the liquid inside the tank runs out.
“If somebody steals a sight glass and drains a 400-litre tank of corrosion inhibitor, it’s not the product, the product is a few thousand dollars, it’s the damage to the environment we’re much more concerned about,” he said. “The cleanup could be tens of thousands of dollars.”
Encana has cut its workforce in half, by about 1,600 people, over the past three years, part of an estimated 44,000 lost jobs in the oil industry since the downturn began in mid-2014.
But Ferguson said the company has had to add staff and invest in more remote monitoring and camera systems over the past 18 months to deal with the surge in thefts.
Joden Dorner, security operations manager at Prospector Energy Services Inc. in Bezanson, Alta., said the increase in oilpatch crime is related to the current economic slowdown. The company has increased its security division by about 25 per cent over the past two years to about 30 employees.
He said thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated and his firm, which patrols country roads near Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta for clients including Encana, is trying to keep up by using remote cameras and improving communication with clients.
“It’s organized,” Dorner said. “We’ve caught the same faces on camera in different vehicles, all stolen vehicles … One guy goes out and scouts the area during the day. Then the next crew goes in and steals everything.”
He said thieves are taking anything easy to transport and difficult to trace, scavenging for generators, tools, trailers, fuel and all-terrain vehicles. Well sites often have deep-cycle batteries worth hundreds of dollars used to store energy from solar panels — when they are stolen, the well automatically shuts down, he said.
One of the most commonly stolen items is copper wire for sale to metal recycling firms, RCMP statistics confirm.
Ferguson said 12-millimetre-thick lengths of insulated wire are used to ground equipment on site. If they are removed, it creates the risk of electrical shock for workers.