At a young age, Josh Wettlaufer fell in love with the idea of operating a drill rig and that dedication to his dream led to the creation of EnvrioBore Directional Drilling.
In pursuit of becoming a drill rig operator, Wettlaufer attended Fleming College in Ontario, which offers Canada’s only resources drilling and blasting program. It was there that he first learned about horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and its benefits in the construction world.
In 1999, Wettlaufer began an HDD career that took him throughout Ontario, to the eastern United States and then back to Canada, where he worked for Robert B. Somerville Co. and eventually landing at Dwayne Unger Construction in Alberta. Throughout all of his travels and honing of his skills as an HDD operator, Wettlaufer knew he would someday helm his own HDD company.
In Alberta, much of the HDD work was focused in the oil and gas industry and when the economy took a hit work slowed, but Wettlaufer kept at it with a watchful eye on the economy. He noticed in 2010 that things were on the upswing and, taking advantage of the still low interest rates, he bought his first pieces of equipment.
“We started out in a friend’s parking lot with a pickup, two semis, a water truck and a Ditch Witch JT100 drill,” Wettlaufer says.
That was in September 2010 — with four employees — and Grand Prairie-based EnviroBore started drilling that November, with Wettlaufer travelling from one corner of the province to another. The first winter he worked for Cequence Energy and things really started to take off in July 2011 when EnviroBore landed a contract with Willbros Canada. The latter relationship maintains to this day with at least one EnviroBore drill rig on a Willbros project three to four months of the year.
Given Alberta’s status as a top player in Canada’s oil and gas industry, it is no surprise that 90 percent of EnviroBore’s work is focused in the oil patch, but the company does perform some utility and fibre-optic work, which led to one of its most challenging projects to date.
This past winter, EnviroBore tackled working in the Arctic Circle on the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link project in the Northwest Territories for the Northern Lights Fibre Consortium. Ledcor Developments Ltd. and Northwestel Inc. lead the consortium and the project involves the installation of a high-speed fibre-optic link connecting communities in the Mackenzie Valley and Beaufort Delta to the fibre grid in southern Canada.
Because of the remote area — EnviroBore worked as far north as Fort Good Hope — the equipment had to be trucked in and out on the fabled ice roads and crews stayed in native villages. This added a new level of complexity to the daily routine, including tenting the HDD work sites and bringing a boiler for the drilling fluid. At one point, when moving the equipment, the crew had to unload its Vermeer D330X500 rig and walk it about a kilometre across the Mackenzie River because the ice road was not thick enough to hold it on the truck.
“To get this job, we committed to the client that we would bring $200,000 worth of spare parts for the rig and support equipment,” Wettlaufer says. “We brought more than $200,000 worth of spare parts alone in a Sea-Can (shipping container) just to be on the job. We also brought a full time factory mechanic that was trained on the Vermeer D330.”
EnviroBore crews attempted two bores for the fibre-optic project. Crews successfully completed a 790 m shot but the project owner, due to major cobble and gravel, abandoned the second bore. After the abandoned bore, EnviroBore had to vacate the project so its equipment would not be stuck in the village due to the melting ice roads. Two more bores are planned for later this year and early 2016 when the ice roads reopen.
“That was a cool project in permafrost and sub-arctic conditions,” Wettlaufer says.
Major equipment rounding out the EnviroBore HDD operations are a pair of Ditch Witch JT100 drills, a Vermeer SA400 mud pump, a Vermeer R9x12T reclaimer, two 53-ft trailers that EnviroBore retrofitted into mud vans for the Ditch Witch drills, a HammerHead air hammer and a tri-drive MetaFLO waste fluid solidification unit.
“MetaFLO technology takes spent drilling fluid and instead of trying to land spread it or taking it to the plant it solidifies it, through a sheering process similar to mixing mud and we turn it into a dry solid,” Wettlaufer says. “It’s less expensive and more economical for a client when you can haul it to landfill or land spread it on the pipeline as a dry product in a dump truck. It’s $200 less than the high expense of using a vac truck that is well over $200 an hour.”
For tooling and wireline services EnviroBore uses InRock’s Canadian operation and Wettlaufer has high praise for the company and its products, so much, so that InRock is in the process of training EnviroBore technicians on wireline guidance.
“As the (HDD) industry is getting busier, sometimes they can’t get to a client. They have been good to me, but I need to be proactive and have a couple of my guys trained,” Wettlaufer says. “With our Vermeer rig, we run 24-7.”
Speaking about the overall growth of the HDD industry, Wettlaufer attributes much of it to advancements in the equipment and the provinces, municipalities and utility owners seeing the benefits of less disruptive installation methods for projects.
With this growth though, Wettlaufer highlights the greatest challenge facing the HDD industry and the construction industry as a whole is labor shortages.
“Hands down, finding experienced workforce is the No. 1 hardest thing. Now that we are growing bigger with equipment, it is hard to find good guys and with HDD getting more popular, more companies are popping up and hiring away guys for a $1 more an hour,” he says. “There are not enough people in the trades. You are outside, you are in the cold, you are getting wet and there are less people coming out of school that want to be in those industries.”
Being proactive and getting to the high school-age students is paramount, the HDD veteran says. That is why he is collaborating with Fleming College and recently hired eight graduates from its Resource Drilling and Mining program. Wettlaufer hopes the greenhorns have a log career with EnviroBore because the outcome is essential to both the recent graduates’ and the company’s growth.
Though there were tough times since the company’s inception, EnviroBore has grown each year, which Wettlaufer credits to the dedication and strong work ethic of his employees and family.
“We literally have doubled each year. We just work and work,” Wettlaufer says. “The key to our success is finding and hiring like-minded workers like me that love and have a passion for HDD. We believe in the technology, and how it benefits the environment compared to open cutting. We are still small enough and I push the family atmosphere.”
It is through his family’s support that EnviroBore has grown to a company that at its peak last year had 32 employees including Wettlaufer’s dad, Lyle Wettlaufer in the field. He also credits his wife Lauren for much-needed support, as he is gone most of the year working on projects, and his mom, Ellen, who helps at the office.
“I owe my success to them for their sacrifice because we have been so busy,” Wettlaufer says. “The good men that are under me — Brad Payne, Lawrence O’Gorman and my father Lyle — are the keys in starting EnviroBore; they busted their backs and worked hard to help build the company we are today.”
In the last year, the company also expanded its office staff to include Phil Arial, general manager and NCSO; Emma Laver, office manager; and Kerry Reber, bookkeeper, all of whom allow Wettlaufer to concentrate on fieldwork with the knowledge that the daily commitments are met in the office.
Looking ahead, Wettlaufer says that as long as he and his company stay true to EnviroBore’s reputation as an honest and professional drilling company, there is plenty of room for growth on the horizon.