With the Mackenzie River shipping season approaching its traditional close, tug and barge companies are pushing to complete their final voyages by mid-October when navigation buoys are lifted from the river, and for the first time in decades, there is a new company on the water.
This year, Island Tug and Barge (ITB), no stranger to the North, joined two survivors from the golden era of shipping on the river – Cooper Barging Services and Northern Transportation Co. Ltd. (NTCL).
ITB brought four double-hulled fuel barges from its base in Vancouver with the expectation of finding work for them on the Mackenzie, but 2013 proved to be more about positioning equipment and establishing a base in Hay River, said Niels Gram, the company’s vice-president of marketing.
“Over the last two years, we’ve invested close to $40 million in this,” Gram said. “We’ve had an interest in the North for some time. In 2005, we made a fuel delivery to the Beaufort Sea in the Western Arctic and we’ve seen it as a good growth opportunity.”
Not since the Arctic exploration boom of the ‘70s and the waning days of the National Energy Program, when a half dozen tug and barge companies worked the Mackenzie, has the North attracted so much interest from marine transportation and logistics companies.
“The Canol Shale play was one of many potential business opportunities which was part of our decision making,” Gram said, but emphasized the company’s “general strategy is based more on trying to satisfy local markets. If some of these bigger plays came to fruition, we will be in position if there was a fit for ITB.”
After several years of setbacks beginning with the 2008 recession, 2013 was a satisfying year for NTCL, despite the loss of Bill Duffy, the third person to serve as president of the company since 2009.
Duffy steered the iconic Northern company through what was described as a “make or break year,” refinancing NTCL’s pension debt. But last May, he returned to McKeil Marine in Hamilton.
“We secured fuel contracts with Imperial Oil and the Northwest Territories, and we carried most of the supplies for ConocoPhillips and Husky,” said Bill Smith, NTCL’s vice-president of logistics and business development.
The Canol shale play, if it proves up, could be a return to the future planned for NTCL in the ‘70s when its fleet of tugs and barges was built to service energy developments in the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea.
“It’s one of the more important developments to take place in the North in the last while,” Smith said. “Hopefully it will carry forward for a great many years. From our perspective, it’s an important part of the North and business to our company.”
This year, NTCL had nine scheduled stops in Norman Wells, up from six last year – “something the community and potential customers have been asking for and we have done everything we can to meet those requests,” Smith said.
NTCL doesn’t venture into the Liard, the domain of Cooper, said Smith, who sees the main competition on the Mackenzie coming from ITB.
“Most people say there is not much wrong with competition,” he noted.
Cooper has been delivering fuel and supplies to communities on the Liard and Mackenzie since 1942, when Mike Cooper’s father first voyaged down the Liard.
The Canol shale play is adding to their business, said Cooper. They have barged equipment and supplies for MGM Energy, ConocoPhillips and Husky, mostly drill rigs and supplies.
“Fort Simpson gives us a quicker turnaround than Hay River for rented equipment brought north for the Canol,” he said. “A lot of equipment we haul in is used for the job and then hauled out on the next voyage to Norman Wells.”