Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Oil's not well with our roads
Transporting black gold has industry seeing red
RM of PIPESTONE -- Southwest of the town of Cromer, near Manitoba's western border, it's tough to drive 300 metres without encountering an active oil well or find a rig drilling a new one.
This is the heart of the Sinclair Field, home to the some of the most intensive oil development in southwestern Manitoba, much of it spearheaded by Winnipeg's Tundra Oil & Gas.
As recently as five years ago, a Sunday drive through this corner of the province would grant a motorist near-exclusive access to the section roads that criss-cross the RM of Pipestone's prairie-pothole country.
Now, heavy trucks transporting gravel for building well pads, water for fracks and all manner of machinery kick up dust and gravel seven days a week. It's a scene that's become familiar across this booming Prairie oilpatch, which encompasses broad swaths of western North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan along with smaller sections of eastern Montana and southwestern Manitoba.
The needs of the oil industry have turned into a logistics challenge, as the transport industry scrambles to mobilize resources to serve once-quiet rural areas.
In November, Beausejour trucking-company owner Wes Omichinski packed up his belongings and moved to tiny Reston, population 550, swapping southeastern Manitoba for the southwest. His firm, Williamson Trucking, operates 13 trucks and can't find enough qualified drivers to meet the sand-and-gravel demands of both the Sinclair Field and Pipestone residents suddenly flush with cash.
"People are throwing money at you here," says Omichinski, sitting his office on Fourth Street, Reston's commercial drag. He says his customers tend to ask only when he can deliver -- not how much he's going to charge.
Omichinski said business didn't even seem to subside during the spring thaw, when load restrictions on Manitoba roads typically reduce heavy truck traffic.
His biggest headache is the state of those roads, particularly paved provincial highways.
"They suck," he said matter-of-factly, complaining of potholes, inadequate maintenance and what he perceives to be indifference to southwestern Manitoba on the part of a government based in Winnipeg, 300 kilometres to the east.
"We have this namby-pamby provincial government that only seems to focus on health care and education. That's all they seem to care about," he says. "People here are ambitious. The pace (of development) around here is mind-boggling."
The state of both provincial and municipal road infrastructure is a concern to oil companies, although officials are unwilling to discuss this issue on the record. For example, the continued closure of the bridge over the Souris River at Provincial Road 251 -- damaged two years ago by the record flood -- forces trucks bound to and from the busy Waskada oilfield to make frequent detours.
The provincial Tory Opposition sees frustrations over oilpatch infrastructure as another opportunity to hammer Greg Selinger's NDP government.
"This is the sad state of affairs of a government that wants to reap the benefits of the oil industry but doesn't want to invest in it," Arthur-Virden MLA Larry Maguire said last week in an interview.
Such statements amount to Politics 101 in a deep-blue corner of Manitoba where many ordinary people have little faith in a far-removed orange government.
But the reality is few people in Winnipeg of any political stripe have ever heard of such towns as Reston or Cromer -- let alone realize how much activity is occurring in the RM of Pipestone and the rest of the southwestern Manitoba oilpatch.
Up next: North Dakota, where the oil boom has transformed a state.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2013 A3
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About Bartley Kives
Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.
Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.
In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.
He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.
A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.
Bartley appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.
Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.
On Twitter: @bkives
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