For a growing number of helicopter companies from B.C. and beyond, the promise of billions of dollar in liquefied natural gas (LNG) developments isn’t merely a pie in the sky, it is fast becoming a big source of revenue.
With pre-construction work on proposed LNG projects joining other resource developments, the sky above Terrace has been churning with helicopters operated by companies both familiar and new to the region.
“Any helicopter operator in Western Canada would be considering the Terrace region,” said John Buckland, an operations manager from Great Slave Helicopters which has its home office in Yellowknife.
Recent arrivals include Highland from Vancouver, Summit from Yellowknife and Mustang from Alberta.
They’re lining up with established companies already here such as Quantum, Lakelse Air, White River and the large international company, Canadian Helicopters, which has just finished building a new hangar at Northwest Regional Airport.
Then there are hopefuls like the medium-sized company Transwest from Oliver B.C. who already have two aircraft committed to a new Terrace operation. Vancouver-based Helijet is also exploring the potential of the region.
Specialty companies are also needed for heavy lift jobs such as the construction of the Northwest Transmission Line. A deal to bring in a gigantic six bladed, twin-piloted 4,000 horsepower lifting machine called a Skycrane was recently struck between main power line contractor Valard and Erickson Air-Crane for the transportation of towers to remote locations. The American helicopter company Winco will also likely be hired to lay cable from tower to tower – a high-risk, niche skill.
With the race on to sell LNG to hungry Asian markets, several pipeline projects – Pacific Trails and Coastal GasLink to feed plants at Kitimat and Spectra to supply a plant at Prince Rupert – have been hiring companies for work in the area.
The projects are at different stages of development. Right-of-way clearing has started on some projects while other routes are being assessed. All need to get people and supplies to remote locations which means hundreds of hours of air time at rates of $1,100 to $3,000 an hour.
But as the number of helicopter companies here grows, several local operators feel they are getting elbowed out of the way.
Terrace-based helicopter company White River celebrated 20 years of business in the region this year. Its credentials include lengthy coastal flying experience and aboriginal ownership which owner Sid Peltier and others in the business say is valued by large industrial companies.
While White River is doing swift business in the growing mining business, Peltier says oil and gas companies remain cool to his advances.
“They don’t even bother to give you the time of day,” Peltier said of efforts to contact pipeline companies. “I’ve been trying Enbridge for seven years,” he continues, adding that Spectra doesn’t seem interested either.
Peltier’s worried that local companies may miss out on the LNG wave because oil and gas companies, mainly based in Alberta, have established relationships with out-of-region helicopter companies.
The local outfits argue they are better equipped and have more experience to handle the region’s unique terrain and flying conditions.
Craig Roy, owner of North Coast Heli and local pilot-for-hire said that it isn’t hard to feel left out when out-of-town pilots lift off regularly from the Northwest Regional Airport while he wakes up in Prince Albert to do jobs hundreds of kilometres from home.
He says helicopter experience needs to be area-specific and that 15 years local flying makes him better suited for work here compared to out-of-region pilots who rotate in and out of Terrace.
“A pilot who has spent his career flying a traffic helicopter and then one day begins flying heli-skiers into the mountains can be compared to a general practitioner suddenly performing open heart surgery,” Roy said.
For its part, Canadian Helicopters says their pilots train for mountain experience at a cutting edge mountain facility in Penticton.
Roy makes the argument that a short training program can never replace decades of experience learning local terrain.
“The [larger] helicopter companies are making really good money ... they are employing the pilots very cheaply because they are coming up here to gain experience,” Roy said. “It’s just a matter of time before they have another accident because there is no experience coming.”
What new arrivals have going for them are safety and certification credentials required by oil and gas companies and the contractors they employ.
Certification standards like ISNetworld and ENFORM offer what amounts to a screening of aviation companies, though Peltier and others charge that these additional audits are expensive and time-consuming – a cash grab by their sponsoring agencies trying to milk oil money.
According to Peltier, federal regulator Transport Canada has its own auditing system that’s just as rigorous. And if oil and gas companies can’t guarantee work should Peltier acquire those other certifications, he’d rather not take on that financial burden.
“What we need from them is an approval that says okay, if you get your approval and we audit you and you are successful we will fly with you. But we are not given that opportunity because they are bringing in contractors that have been pre-approved from previous times.”
Another local company, Quantum Helicopters, has put in the time and made the additional certification investment and is now waiting for a response from the oil-and-gas industry.
“It’s kind of a Catch 22,” says Quantum owner Ian Swan said. “You can’t get the work without the audit and you can’t get the audit without having the work. With the employee wages involved we have spent $100,000 getting these certifications that these corporations need and we’ve received absolutely zero.”
Pipeline construction company TransCanada has been selected to build two pipelines carrying natural gas to the coast from the northeast. One is the Pacific Trails Pipeline bound for Kitimat and the other is the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project to carry gas to a planned LNG plant near Prince Rupert.
Company official Janis Andersson says all companies working for TransCanada must pass a “third party audit” in order to qualify for contracts.
A larger local company like Lakelse Air is more optimistic but does express some uncertainty about how they will fit into the LNG mix.
“I think we have been really proactive in our systems and the direction we knew this was coming for a long time,” said Lakelse Air operations manager James Carr who has 16 years of flight experience. “I think we may be a little behind the curve but I think we will be fine.”
Carr admits that it might be tougher for smaller companies.
“There are some smaller companies in town that probably aren’t going to get a kick at a lot of this work because they don’t have what they need to do the job,” Carr said.
Some companies may be limited by their fleet size. Larger companies, for example, may have dual engine and mid- to heavy-lift helicopters on hand, a requirement for many pipeline projects.
However Roy argues that any company can bring in the right helicopters if awarded a contract.
Craig Kendal from Canadian believes there will be plenty of work regardless of whether a company has mid to heavy lift capacity.
Companies that do more light lift work will be able to collaborate with companies who specialize in mid- to heavy-lift operations, he said.
Spectra media representative Rosemary Silva said there will continue to be work available in pre-construction (engineering reconnaissance flights and environmental field studies), during construction (transporting material and workers) and in the post-construction phases (to support ongoing operation and maintenance).
“Spectra Energy is committed to identifying and creating opportunities for local and aboriginal contractors, businesses, and workers across our business,” Silva said in an email. “Our ongoing goal is for communities to share in the benefits of our projects across our operating areas.”
Peltier said he still isn’t convinced.