As Alberta's oil fields enjoy a rise in activity, the province is hitting another not-so-sweet spot in the energy cycle: an uptick in pillaging.
Millions of dollars' worth of generators, all-terrain vehicles, trucks, equipment platforms, drilling rigs, welders, mulchers, tools, copper wire and even crude oil vanish each year from oil and gas sites.
Police are responding by dedicating more officers to the problem, as well as working to share information between detachments. The provincial legislature may soon consider a private member's bill that would require sellers to scrap yards to provide identification, potentially closing off one avenue for disposing of stolen material. And the industry's own security procedures have grown more thorough as well.
"These are high-ticket items," said Wood Buffalo RCMP Staff Sergeant Keith Durance, who is based in Fort McMurray. "Generally speaking, there is a pretty lucrative market in larger industrial equipment."
Alberta-based energy producers frequently operate in far-flung sites, where it is often impossible to place security personnel around the clock – or the calendar year – without incurring huge costs. They are prime targets for thieves.
"Since the economy came back, it's starting to be more of a problem," said Sergeant Jeff McBeth, the RCMP commander in the northwestern Alberta community of Fox Creek.
His detachment receives oil-field theft complaints at a rate of one a week, including one in January for a mulcher valued at $200,000, which still hasn't been located.
"Right now, in Alberta, because the oil industry is really booming, places like the Leducs, the Niskus, the Fox Creeks, the Draytons, the Grande Prairies, we're all experiencing the same kinds of crime when it comes to oil-field equipment," Sgt. McBeth added.
Backbench Tory MLA Dave Quest is now taking a third run at his private member's bill – the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Identification Act – which would require people selling aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, stainless steel, steel, tin or other metal to scrap yards to provide identification such as a driver's licence. It would also place an onus on dealers to keep records and notify police of suspicious circumstances.
Mr. Quest, who's optimistic about Bill 201's chances when the legislature resumes this week, said he has heard about the issue for years in his industrial heartland riding on the outskirts of Edmonton.
"Once you've got it, you've basically got cash in hand," said the MLA for Strathcona-Sherwood Park. "We need to fix that."
The problem of oil-field equipment theft became so noticeable in Southern Alberta a couple of years ago that a task force was created to drive greater collaboration between RCMP detachments and to designate an officer at each dedicated to tackling oil-field robberies and mischief.
It seems to be working, according to police.
Across the province, RCMP recently added extra shifts specifically to patrol rural areas for thefts and vandalism. The industry has also taken extraordinary measures to deal with the problem, including welding doors closed when sites are temporarily shut down, or even hiring 24-hour staff to live on vulnerable sites.
"It's a bad thing, but it's almost like a norm for the industry," said Mark Salkeld, president of Petroleum Services Association of Canada.
He said thieves take advantage of the "spring breakup" – a time when the thaw starts, drilling sites turn into muddy messes and heavy vehicles that could damage fragile roads are banned from travel. Drilling sites are closed for several weeks or month, and left empty.
Mr. Salkeld said simply locking doors hasn't worked.
"We'd build special covers over the locks to make it harder to snap them with a crowbar," he said.
"Then even those failed so we would just weld the doors shut."
When it was time to start up again, he added, "We would just cut it, and grind it, and paint it up and go to work the next season."
George McHardy, executive vice-president of Nabors Canada, which provides contract drilling services at oil and natural gas sites, said typically the company asks clients to pay for "rig watch" to protect equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Typically, there's no clues, right? You come back to a rig site and all the cables are cut off and they're gone."
A 67-year-old oil-patch veteran is set to appear in a Fort McMurray court next week charged with stealing 58 massive steel-framed equipment pads valued at $266,800 from a former employer.
RCMP officers spent more than two years investigating the theft of the hefty rig mats from a Statoil Canada Ltd. site. The accused, Harold Slaferek of the Calgary area, has more than 35 years of experience in the industry, according to corporate documents.
In another case, two men were arrested last month at a Cenovus Energy site near Clandonald, about two hours east of Edmonton. Police later searched a property and reported finding more than $250,000 in items linked to oil sites.
"There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people making an honest living in the oil patch," Cenovus spokesman Reg Curren said. "[People] could be stealing from their neighbours or friends."