Clearing the Well

Earthmaster knows what to do with an oil field after it's used up, and the answer’s different than you might think

An aerial shot of a contaminated-soil-treatment facility in southern Alberta. Earthmaster designed, constructed, and operates the facility.
Earthmaster field consultants monitoring on-site contaminated-soil-remediation activities in Alberta.
Earthmaster field consultants monitoring on-site contaminated-soil-remediation activities in Alberta.

When asked about founding Earthmaster Environmental Strategies Inc. from a home office in Alberta in 1998, company president Perry Gerwing shrugs off the company’s beginnings as merely incidental. A naturally gifted entrepreneur—and finalist the past two years for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award—Gerwing has grown Earthmaster to a team of 35 full-time employees and has codeveloped a remediation technology that earned Alberta’s coveted Emerald Award for excellence in environmental initiatives.

“Our focus has always been to look at the practical side of environmental program management,” Gerwing says. “When developing and/or evaluating various methods or strategies, we look for the most practical approach to mitigating a liability or reclaiming an industrial disturbance.”

Gerwing has been in the oil-and-gas industry for more than 25 years, first getting a job at an agricultural and environmental consulting firm straight out of graduate school, where he studied soil science. Gerwing’s background is rooted in agriculture and, as such, the agricultural ethic continues to inform what Gerwing does at Earthmaster. “With a solid practical and educational background in agriculture, it was an easy transition into environmental work where I was able to see a bright future—and an economic upside,” Gerwing says.

The Word On Green

Perry Gerwing’s thoughts on some vital factors affecting sustainability

Technology: “I think of advancement, but I also think of complication and lost jobs. Some technology has advanced our comfort, but other devices have done the opposite. People have stopped talking to each other.”

Communication: “It’s critical to any service industry. If we’re not communicating with our clients effectively, we’re not doing our job.”

Alternative fuels: “I think there will be a time for it. Fossil fuels are still abundant, and with advances in technology we’re still finding ways to extract more hydrocarbons from the earth.”

Gerwing then went on to work as an environmental advisor at Gulf Canada Resources for seven years. His territory encompassed Western Canada, which allowed him to develop connections and understand the challenges and needs of the oil-and-gas industry. While Gerwing was able to progress in a corporate setting, he had an entrepreneurial itch to satisfy. After a very brief transition period upon leaving Gulf, Gerwing founded Earthmaster, hiring a small team of four to get the company started.

“I knew the business, I knew what had to be done, and I knew the laws of the land,” Gerwing says. “A lot of engineering companies were looking to start environmental divisions at that time. It was a growing trend that was just starting to catch, and that’s why I started Earthmaster.”

Though the green movement often works contrary to the oil-and-gas industry, the oil-and-gas industry will remain a major force well beyond the coming decades. Additionally, the industry has been heavily regulated by environmental policy, and requires players like Earthmaster to both help companies adopt cleaner policies and to develop alternative technologies for cleaner fossil-fuel production.

Earthmaster offers overall environmental program management and a turnkey environmental service (i.e., inactive oil-and-gas facility abandonment activities through to final site reclamation). More than 90 percent of its workload is associated with assessment and remediation of contaminated sites and final site reclamation activities. Earthmaster currently holds over 1,400 well sites and facilities in its project portfolio.

Once an oil-and-gas facility is no longer needed, the cleanup process begins with a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment. “This identifies any potential areas of environmental concern,” says Gerwing. “The client will then get a comprehensive report with a list of recommendations.” With the client’s approval, Earthmaster will then perform a detailed assessment, which involves subsurface investigations to identify if contamination exists. Soil and water samples would be submitted to a third-party analytical laboratory to ensure objectivity of collected information.

Perry Gerwing attending the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year banquet in Calgary.
Perry Gerwing attending the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year banquet in Calgary.

“If there is contamination, we will work with the client to determine a course of action to clean up the site to meet regulatory guidelines,” Gerwing says. Then, based on site-specific factors, Earthmaster will develop a remediation plan, which might involve the straightforward excavation of contaminated soil and removal to a landfill, on-site treatment using conventional technologies and processes, or a more environmentally sustainable and technologically advanced “phytoremediation system” that Gerwing has been developing with Waterloo Environmental Biotechnology and the University of Waterloo for the past nine years.

According to a 2007 white paper authored by Gerwing and a team from the University of Waterloo, along with numerous peer-reviewed papers published in renowned scientific journals, the phytoremediation system utilizes PGPR (plant growth promoting rhizobacteria). The PGPR removes plant stress caused by contamination or other environmental factors, successfully supports plant growth, and stimulates the growth of the natural microbial population in the soil. This leads to successful degradation of organic contaminants and/or uptake into plant tissue of inorganic contaminants.

Rather than moving contaminated soil from one location to another, which is done when soil is landfilled, phytoremediation allows soil to be remediated and reused on-site. It’s a significant advancement in contaminated site remediation that Gerwing is excited about, as he looks to the future of Earthmaster and the environmental industry. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I am in favour of treating and reusing soil rather than hauling it to a landfill, where it will never be reused.”