Southeast Saskatchewan Legend Dean Pylypuk

Finding perspective on the ups and downs of the industry

Estevan – You might think someone whose job for more than three decades has been to act as a regulator would tend to wear a tie. But when it comes to Dean Pylypuk, you’d be wrong. He’s more likely to show up at an oil show on his Harley, wearing leather. 

Dean Pylypuk was honoured at the Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Show on June 5 as a Southeast Saskatchewan Legend. As part of the award ceremony the Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre, read out the citation.

Before he became the Regional Manager for Area 4 (southeast Saskatchewan) with the Ministry of Energy and Resources, Pylypuk worked his way up on the drilling rigs, working in western Canada, the Artic Islands and overseas.

Dean grew up in Raymore. “My dad was a general contractor, sold and built houses, and my mom had a hairdressing shop. I was fortunate. I had two working parents, but my mom was a door away from me. Dad built the hairdressing shop in the front of our house,” he said on May 2.

Graduating in 1972, he went pipelining for Moosomin-based Shamrock Construction, doing mainline installation for the rural gasification program.

Way up north

“That winter drilling season, I went to the Mackenzie Delta with Regent Drilling,” he said.

There he was introduced to the oilpatch. The following summer he drove lowbed truck for United Pipeline.

The arctic islands were his next destination, working on a drilling rig with Gustavson Arctic Drilling on Cameron and Melville Islands for Panarctic Oils.

“I drilled in the only commercial oilfield that was ever discovered there, the Bent Horn Field,” he said.

“That field was discovered in 1974, and I think in 1985, they shipped their first 100,000 barrels, just to prove they could do it.”

The window of opportunity, due to the ice, was only weeks long to get supplies in and oil out. There were 10 to 12 rigs working there in the high arctic, drilling onshore and offshore. Panarctic was a consortium of oil companies and the federal government.

“For a couple years, they shipped from up there, down to Quebec. They were receiving high arctic oil at a Canadian refinery but they soon found there was no profit in this, so they decided instead to take the product, a condensate, to Resolute, to use as fuel in the communities power generator.”

In 1975 Pylypuk married Laura Anderson, a farm girl from the Serath district.

“We started dating when we were 15. We dated for six years and we’ve been married 44 years,” he said.

She was an elementary teacher until they moved overseas.

Northern Ireland during The Troubles

The arctic work lasted from 1975 to 1979. From there Pylypuk went to Northern Ireland as a toolpush on a big triple land rig, drilling for the British Geological Society. They weren’t drilling for oil, rather, it was a geothermal energy project. It was the deepest well in Ireland at the time

“In Ireland, we were at Larne, about 40 miles out of Belfast. We were drilling for subsurface geothermal We were expecting to encounter a hot reservoir at 8,000 feet.”

He noted they were there when tensions due to “The Troubles,” were very high. “It was quite an experience for us to leave here, and go over there. You were basically going from freedom to military rule. When they shut the streets down, they shut the streets down. They barricaded and cattle-gated the streets. Certain areas within the towns and cities, you were not allowed to be in vehicles at night. You could still walk in those areas.

“I remember the first time we were doing a crew change at 11 o’clock at night, I had picked the crew up, and, of course, I was learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road. The rig was not that far from the harbour.”

They were sitting at a stoplight with three other men in his vehicle when he looked out. “I just happened to glance out … and there was a rifle pointed right at the car. I looked across the other way, and there’s his buddy, sitting across, also with his rifle pointed at our vehicle. Two young soldiers. Here we were, 11:30 at night in a car, and they take no chances,” Pylypuk said.

They got used to the military presence, but their son’s baby stroller wouldn’t be allowed into stores. Searches were a regular thing. “The Irish are very genuine people all they wanted was what anybody else wanted, a roof over their head, some food in their belly, and enough at the end of the week to have a pint of beer at the local establishment,” he said.

Similar to today, there was a big push to find alternative sources of energy.

Hard rock drilling in England

Cornwall, England, was the next stop about six months later. It was another geothermal project, this one for the Cameron School of Mines. He was drilling in a quarry in solid, PreCambrian granite, but they were too efficient, hitting total depth in nine months instead of the expected 16.

“There’s a thermal anomaly there,” he said.

“The secret was we used Russian turbodrills and mining bits,” he said. “Those Russian turbodrills we used could take up to 80,000 pounds bit weight and rotate at 40 RPM. It was proprietary technology that the Russians had at that time. What they had done was stacked the stators, doubling the stators up.

“We’ve got that technology here, now.”

His last overseas work was in Holland, managing a rig drilling natural gas wells for Petroland, the Dutch subsidiary of Elf Oil out of France. When his contract was up they came home to Canada in December of 1983.

Pylypuk joined the Petroleum Development Branch of the then Department of Energy and Mines in June 1984, a career that allowed him to be home with his family. “I started as a petroleum and natural gas technician,” Pylypuk said.

He has worked continuously as a provincial regulator out of the Estevan office and in 2004 he was appointed regional manager.

Finding perspective

He soon learned to put things in perspective.

“When I started here, oil was $16 to $18 a barrel. I remember one time, it had gone to $15, and that was at the time when all your big multinational companies were turning people out on the streets of Calgary by the thousands. That was the Imperial Oils, the Gulfs, the Shells. And you were like, ‘’Oh this could get interesting.’’’

He remembered a producer coming in to pull a file and asked about this drop, and was told, “Dean, we might see $10 a barrel before this is over,’ and he kept looking at his file.

“When it was all said and done, it was $8 a barrel, before it started to recover. I learned from that experience, things go up, they go down. Shortly thereafter we were at spring meetings in Regina and the deputy minister at that time was speaking to us at one of the seminars. The question was raised, what was the future of the industry?”

The deputy minister, whose education and background was not from the oil industry, said, “Well, it’s this way: if you’re in the oil business, for every barrel of oil you sell, you eventually have to replace it. So they’ll be drilling again.”

Pylypuk went on, “Now, that philosophy has always stuck with me. We’re working with diminishing returns. You have to be drilling to stay in the game, and it cycles up and down.”

The job of regulator has been fundamentally the same, no matter who is in government. Pylypuk’s lengthy experience lends to a wider perspective. While some might consider 30 rigs working in the area to be a low number now, he remembers when the same number of rigs was considered boom times.

And of those thousands laid off in Calgary, he said, “A lot of those people became your next operators, your next CEOs. And a lot of them looked at southeast Saskatchewan as fertile ground.”

He added, “A guy told me many, many years ago, if you want to spend money quick, go to southeast Saskatchewan. Alberta, at that time, it took six months to get a lease prepared. Here, at that time, over a morning cup of coffee, a landman could sign the farmer up, and you could have the cats on location by mid-afternoon. Two days later, you would have a lease built. You could have a licence within a week, a well drilled and completed – in two weeks, and now you had cashflow.”

Bakken Boom

During the following 35 years Pylypuk saw oil go down to $8 a barrel and up to $147 a barrel. The spike in oil prices coincided with the Bakken boom in southeast Saskatchewan, with a billion dollars in land sales in that region in 2008. They were extremely busy, especially as this was before the implementation of online business processes.

It made for some long days. One week saw 105 drilling rigs working in Area 4, southeast Saskatchewan. “It was exciting times. They were good times,” he said.

On the regulatory standpoint, Pylypuk has found Saskatchewan has become much more environmentally conscious, with a lot more oversight with respect to environmental concerns. An example would be the elimination of flare pits in 2001.

One thing that has changed has been the incredible increase in drilling rig efficiency, especially with polycrystalline diamond cutter bit technology and solids control. Wells that took 14 days are now done in five. He saw this himself back when he was drilling in England, when his rig completed that 16-month drilling program in nine months.

“In some ways, the drilling industry is its own worst enemy, because of the efficiencies they’ve been able to make. I see bit technology and solids control as big improvements,” he said. Rigs also take fewer loads to move.

A graduate of the University of Regina Extension Program, Pylypuk has two certificates in administration and has been a member of the Saskatchewan Applied Science Technologists and Technicians since 1987.

Dean and Laura have three children, Nathan, Ira and Renee, and three grandchildren. Nathan works for the Department of Canadian Heritage, Ira works with Enbridge in Regina, and Renee with her husband Scott own Buffalo Head Environmental.

“In summary, when I look back over the past 47 years, I’ve been truly fortunate. I had a tremendous run. There were ups and downs. The first 12 years were working away from home. When I moved here, I moved from a job to a career. I don’t want that to be seen as derogatory in any way. But I was able to be at home, raise a family. And they sacrificed, too, because you were still servicing an industry that works seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” he concluded.

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