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We Went to a Petroleum Trade Show to See How Hard Failling Oil Prices Have Hit the Industry

The industry may be going through a tough time, but Calgary's Global Petroleum Show was still a lavish affair.

by James Wilt
12 June 2015, 5:30am

Photos courtesy of the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Oilmen speak at a volume approximately ten decibels louder than necessary. That's the first lesson one learns while riding the C-Train to Calgary's Global Petroleum Show: Regardless of the quality of your headphones, you will listen to middle-aged white men pontificate about oil prices and Russia's Illuminati-like role in the ongoing global supply shock. More oilmen pile on with every stop, each contributing their own respective takes (in distinct conversations, that is: The subjects are fairly limited in scope). This combo culminates in that weird grade school phenomenon in which the commotion amps up until everything melds into gibberish.

The doors of the train (which is incidentally powered by wind energy) unfasten at the Stampede station and dozens of oilmen proudly sporting lanyards costing $125 apiece exit. It's day two of this gargantuan trade show, and with more than 50,000 people from 100 countries expected to show up for the three-day fossil fuel festival you would know the industry is going through one of the worst downturns in its history. Thankfully, it's only 9:30 AM, so spicy cologne and dad jokes haven't completely inundated the venue. Yet. Very Important Persons pace the vacant halls while barking into their phones about contracts and leases. There's a disturbingly high per-capita ratio of Bluetooth headsets. Someone strolls by wearing an olive cardigan, briefly interrupting the monotony of black suits.

Transporting oil is not for vehicles weak of heart.

The weighty event guide that one is handed upon registration is 176 pages long. There's also a brochure-size "pocket guide" and a free smartphone app available for download. With 2,000 displays stationed in a half dozen sizable halls, such a diversity of resources becomes really rather valuable. Two landmarks quickly become obvious—a dozen models in black cocktail dresses promoting an oil cleaning centrifuge company, and a massive climbable drilling rig. Those are hardly helpful, however, when one somehow ends up in the eerily darkened Stampede Corral, where all sense of direction dissolves. At least booths representing operations in Poland, New Mexico, and Nigeria are consecutively placed to provide some sort of sequence.

It's tough to tell whether it's the irksome omission of an apostrophe in its title or the colorful assortment of bottle caps on display that makes Caps 'n Plugs such an appealing exhibit. As it turns out, the company's product isn't actually bottle caps, but intricate parts for pipelines. Wayne Dowson, the company's Western Canada account manager, says the pieces are "protecting all the equipment oil companies use." Important stuff. Unfortunately, the downturn has made a considerable dent in sales for Caps 'n Plugs, a fact partially alleviated by the company's borderline prophetic expansion into other industries like agriculture and aerospace technology.

"A lot of companies are trying to diversify and change, especially now that they're talking about fossil fuels being phased out over 80 years," Dowson notes. "You're going to see a lot of changes happening."

His colleague Karen Wetherley returns from a Timmy's run (apparently the alleged boycott isn't industry-wide). Wetherley was formerly a recruiter at Suncor; she and her team were a few of the 1,000 employees laid off by the energy giant in the early months of 2015. Luckily, she knew the boss at Caps 'n Plugs. "I got let go, got in my car, drove down, and he was like, 'Here's your new office,'" she says. "I was out of work for about twenty minutes." That's not the case for many, though. Dowson says everyone in the industry knows a few people who are currently unemployed, while Wetherley adds that a majority of her neighbors in Okotoks are out of work.

"It can't get any worse," says Dowson about the potential for the newly elected provincial NDP government to further impact economic conditions. "Never say that," Wetherley quickly retorts with a laugh. "It can always get worse."

Conversely, the Global Petroleum Show just keeps getting more amazing. Exhibits spill outside and clog parking lots usually reserved for Calgary Flames fans. The variety of shit on offer is staggering; categories range from "hydraulic systems" to "asset management" to "pressure vessels." Hundreds of attendees are wandering under the slightly overcast skies. They stop to examine amphibious vehicles and filtration systems, but more often check their smartphones. Asides from the massive climbable drilling rig, the Pettibone Cary-Lift is the most noticeable outdoor attraction: It's a giant, arrestingly yellow vehicle with a mission to pluck pipes from a railcar with its overhead grip (historically, workers would literally have to kick the pipes to the opposite side of the cart for extraction, a dangerous task).

Christian Wales, specialty products manager at Leavitt Machinery (the Edmonton-based company that sells the $400,000 machines), says times are extremely rough for the business: "Pipes are laying on the ground. No one's moving it. All the major projects have been shut down. Oil executives are at a pause: Let's wait and see. That's affected sales."

Such a reality results in an dampened mood at the trade show. Recently, a vice president for ARC Financial projected the downturn could last for two to three years; many vendors back that assessment, forecasting 2016 as a particularly dire year. Marlin Quessy—sales rep for Alta-Fab Structures, a business based near Edmonton that builds fancy-ass modular homes for workers—says the company was forced to cut half of its staff due to the situation. Alta-Fab would usually be constructing a building a day. Instead, they're currently down to four a month. He gestures out the large window to point out the spot Caterpillar Inc. usually sets up. The massive machinery company skipped this year's show. Quessy signals out the window again, noting the unit he's sitting in would typically be set up immediately in front of a rig if deployed in the field.

The number of suited dudes wearing sunglasses indoors doubles exponentially every half-hour. By midday, the halls are packed. Many attendees covertly snag free candy from exhibits, avoiding incriminating eye contact with retailers. Wes Scott, executive vice-president with dmg events—the firm responsible for organizing the extravaganza—notes that the 2012 show resulted in almost $9 billion worth of business, with half of that involving companies from Alberta. He also says the phrase "Global Petroleum Show" approximately every 15 seconds in conversation. Scott assures that despite criticism, the industry is very ready to reform to fit new standards.

These machines could be hurting the environment.

"The industry is anxious to be better," Scott says. "They're concerned about the environment. They're concerned about air quality. They're concerned about climate change. They are looking for solutions."

The ride home on the C-Train's considerably quieter than the morning commute. Except for the inebriated dude partway down the car, that is, who at one points bellows the question: "Anyone got some marijuana?" Silence ensues. He then starts counting numbers in French, petering out at "neuf." The oilmen remain glued to their phones. They're quiet for once. It must be tiring talking about oil all day. The wind-powered train slows to a stop in the downtown, and most of the oilmen get off.

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