Estevan's oil recovery 'like filling up a swimming pool with an eye dropper'

The Energy City is starting to bounce back after oil prices plunged three years ago. Vacancy rates are still high but there are jobs available and not enough people.

After 3 years of downturn, industry picking up again in southeast Sask.

Darryl Shirley has lived through oil busts before, but none this bad. (Joshua Vogt/Radio-Canada)

With more than 30 years of experience working in the oil patch, Darryl Shirley has seen his share of economic downturns.

The first one came in the late 1980s, when Shirley said he went from working 85 to 90 hours a week, to parking his truck and not moving it for the next four and a half years.

But this bust has been the worst he has ever dealt with.

Things in Energy City are picking up again, but many locals remain cautiously optimistic. (Radio-Canada/Joshua Vogt)

Shirley is the head of maintenance for Bert Baxter Transport, a transportation company in Estevan, Sask., geared to moving heavy oilfield equipment. He said the company had to lay off around two-thirds of their staff and parked as many of their trucks.

Industry is coming back — slowly

After recently hiring three people, Shirley said there are around 75 people working at the company. At it's peak he remembers there being closer to 180.

When the oil patch dies it's just like turning off a light switch and when it starts coming back ... it's like filling up a swimming pool with an eye dropper.- Darryl Shirley

The company is running a skeleton staff leading up to road restrictions when streets are too soft to drive on with heavy trucks.

As a result, the oil patch goes to sleep for a month or two, said Shirley. 

"When the oil patch dies it's just like turning off a light switch and when it starts coming back, when we start going back to work in the industry, it's like filling up a swimming pool with an eye dropper," said Shirley.

The price of oil has stabilized at more than $50 a barrel, which in turn means there has been more drilling activity and more optimism in the community.

"We have increased our business in the last little while, to the point where we're actually keeping the wolves away from the door right now," said Shirley.

Even with things slowly picking up he, like many others in the area, are being guarded. 

"A lot of people left the industry, a lot of people left town" and a lot of people went home, said Shirley.

The field is competitive now because skilled workers are hard to come by. Employers were scrambling for workers at a recent career fair in Estevan, said Shirley, and he has heard of companies poaching workers from competitors.

'We always have casualties when we have the downturn'

Estevan Mayor Roy Ludwig knows that an oil dependent economy can be turbulent.

"With us growing up with the history of oil being a big part of our economy, the permanent people that have been here a while realize that the industry tends to be cyclical," said Ludwig.

Part of that cycle includes transient workers leaving town for other opportunities, fewer people frequenting business, and eventually closures and high vacancy rates.

"We always have casualties when we have the downturn," said Ludwig.
Lynn Chipley thinks it will take a year or more for the industry to recover. (Radio-Canada/Joshua Vogt)

Lynn Chipley, owner of Century 21 in Estevan, said since she's lived and worked in the city she's never seen it this bad. Since she starting keeping records in 2001, last year had the lowest number of unit sales, she said.

The last report from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation showed that vacancy rates were at 27 per cent in Estevan.

In southeast Saskatchewan, pumpjacks across the prairie bobbing up and down mirror the boom and bust economy they fuel. Chipley and many others think it will recover, but no one is certain how long it will take. 

"I'm optimistic," said Shirley, "tempered with a little bit of pessimism."

With files from Radio-Canada Saskatchewan