Michels Canada

Courier Crossings

As every horizontal directional drill (HDD) operator knows, each project is unique. That said, there are common elements in HDD projects with the final goal always remaining the same: Install the pipe with minimal impact to the public or harm to the environment.

As a result, an experienced, accomplished contractor is able to apply insights gained on previous HDD projects to current ones, vastly improving performance and the odds of success.

Michels Canada and Michels Directional Crossings have amassed a resume of successfully completing some of the most challenging directional drills throughout North America and are using that experience to complete many more projects.

Michels has completed the first winter portion of HDDs on the TransCanada Northern Courier Pipeline project. The work is a series of large diameter drills that will make up a portion of the pipeline linking an oil sand mine in northern Alberta with a tank farm near Fort McMurray.

Michels Canada has been contracted to execute six 42-in. diameter HDDs, as well as a 42-in. Direct Pipe installation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The 42-in. diameter projects span a combined 7,333 m (24,000 ft) under rivers, lakes and tributaries. The Direct Pipe project stretches 307 m (1,007 ft) under Highway 63. The 42-in. pipe is a casing pipe that will protect a 24-in. hot bitumen line.

The HDD projects are critical parts of the Northern Courier Pipeline, a 90-km (55-mile) route. The entire route, including the HDD and Direct Pipe crossings, has been carefully planned to maximize safety and constructability while minimizing environmental impact.

Through March, two of the 42-in. installations have been completed.
Planning started long before Michels broke any ground on its portion of the Northern Courier project. Comprehensive planning is a key component of Michels’ HDD process that includes developing strategies and contingencies for all components of the HDD process, including equipment, mobilization, weather, environmental protection, geotechnical conditions and personnel.

Michels Canada has completed approximately 40 percent of its work on TransCanada’s Northern Courier Pipelines project.

To date, Michels Canada has completed approximately 40 percent of its work on TransCanada’s Northern Courier Pipelines project.


Michels HDDs have been constructed in all types of terrain and areas —from densely populated urban areas to some of the most remote pipeline projects constructed. Its support teams know what equipment, tools and other supplies are needed for each project and prepare them at various Michels offices located throughout North America.

One element of working in the Fort McKay-Fort McMurray area was access to several of the crossings via ice roads, which meant construction could not start until December or January. As a result, timely construction on those drills is critical so no delays are experienced. The window for construction this year opened in January and closed by mid- to late March.

Working in northern Canada is a normal course of business for Michels Canada. Nonetheless, starting work in January, when temperatures dropped as low as -45 C, tested the company’s ability to work safely and effectively in extreme conditions. Michels has carefully planned and developed rigs that can operate efficiently during winter seasons. As much as the company takes pride in the reliability of its equipment, the safety of its employees is paramount. As a result, full operations are paused whenever temperatures are colder than -40 C.


Michels will be working on multiple drills simultaneously during the course of its HDD work on Northern Courier. As a result, the company will use up to four drill rigs that range from 840,000 lbs to 1.2 million lbs of thrust and pulling capacity.

To contend with winter conditions in northern Canada, additional measures were taken to allow the efficient, dependable use of our equipment. Michels applied a rig winterization program that includes boilers and typical oilfield pump houses and enclosed units to maximize utilization and minimize downtime due to freezing.

Environmental Protection

The Northern Courier drills are in a particularly sensitive location as the environment is already under pressure from the ever-expanding oil sands industry in the Fort McMurray and Fort McKay area. The project consists of crossing of the Athabasca River, McKay River, Dover River, Beaver Lake, Ruth Lake and the tributary to McKay River with an additional Direct Pipe crossing across Highway 63, the primary highway to access the industry.
The trenchless crossings have been coordinated to work around windows that have been recognized to minimize the impact to local bird and wildlife habitat.

Geotechnical Conditions

Geotechnical conditions vary among sites along the Northern Courier project, although the soil in the area is generally considered soft. It varies from muskeg and clay to claystone, sandstone limestone with, of course, the presence of bitumen is an added challenge.


During peak operations, Michels has crews working 24 hours per day with about 100 people working on the two Northern Courier HDDs, as well as doing the 42-in. pipe makeup and support for the drills.

To date, Michels has completed approximately 40 percent of the year-long project.
Patrick O’Donoghue is Michels Trenchless Crossings manager. Mike Vidomski is project manager on the Northern Courier Pipeline project.
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