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Article about Don Binney and the oil industry


Don Binney: A Master of Oilfield Culture

By Gordon Jaremko (with our thanks to Oilweek and JuneWarren Publishing)

Why have generations of youths flocked from across Canada into the oil industry - then stayed with it for life despite its notorious ups and downs - as if it were a promised land? Ask H. Donald Binney, whose fans call him the oilpatch pastor and put him in the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame last fall.

The answer has nothing to do with religion. He is no missionary, on the prowl for converts. The answer belongs to the 38-year career he had before his reincarnation as a minister of the Anglican Church. Binney personifies the human side of the oil and gas game. It yields livelihoods, often best for newcomers who begin with survival instincts and a work ethic rather than formal training. For wage-earners, oil can still be black gold after more than a decade of unreliable commodity prices, skittish stock markets, corporate downsizing, mergers and computer automation. If all the industry's employees and their dependents assembled in one place, they would make a city. A count by the Canadian Energy Research Institute found year-2000 direct employment by the oil and gas industry to be 230,900. That was down 16% from a peak 273,800 in 1990. But most of the loss was in the 'downstream' sector, where a 40% 'rationalization' cut in the number of service stations to about 13,000 from 22,000 and was matched by a 42% reduction in retail staff to 65,000 from 112,800 over the past 10 years. In 'upstream" exploration, production and associated contracting, service, supply, scientific, technical, industrial and construction specialties, employment has been steadily recovering. After failing 26% from a 1985 peak of 96,1 00 to a 1994 low of 71,000, jobs have been coming back and reached 89,400 this year. This community started coming together long before the turning point that made it big, the 1947 Leduc discovery. The welcome mat was out for workers with drive by the time Binney arrived 61 years ago from Moncton, New Brunswick, via Boston and Toronto. The western oil industry that let in Binney at age 18 in 1939 was in its embryo stages.

He had barely heard of the clutch of wells, pipes and tanks in the Turner Valley region south of Calgary. "I didn't think about it much." He only knew about it all because one of his father's cousins had a connection. "He got me a job on the end of a canal wrench - which is a shovel - working for Anglo Canadian Oil." For 50 cents an hour, Binney paid dues as an oilfield beginner on one of the manual labour crews known at the time "the bull gang," digging ditches for small pipelines from batteries of pumpjacks. He knew enough to be glad to have his $4 per day. "You paid your rent. You could eat. You could buy overalls." That was more than thousands of others could say in the depths of the Great Depression, which lingered on in the West until the Leduc gusher brought scale to the oil industry.

It took only 10 months for Binney to take his first step up the oilfield occupational ladder. For a 50% raise to $6 per day, he became a roughneck, fetching and carrying on a drilling rig powered by a steam engine. "Even if it wasn't well paying, it was steady work. You'd do as you were told - clean tanks, keep the rig clean, do chores." Turner Valley oil and gas were "sour," laced with lethal hydrogen-sulphide. There was no counterpart to today's thorough training in coping with the stuff. "We all knew it was there. We all were damned careful. It was all on-the-job. You learned the hard way. If you were successful, you stayed alive." The step up put Binney in touch with the oilfield officer class, which in the early years of the western Canadian industry came from the United States. It shows in old photographs, he says: "You could always tell the toolpushers (rig chiefs) and superintendents. You watched out for tan shoes, light khaki pants and jacket, and a Stetson hat. They were all American guys. It was the traditional outfit from Texas and Oklahoma. When you saw a guy coming dressed like that, you made sure you were working." It was a gruff, rough culture where it was not smart to flaunt special accomplishments in any way that could be mistaken for puffing on airs. The formula for fitting in was a blend of respect, initiative, accepting authority and refusing to be intimidated. The way ahead was performance rather than bragging self-promotion. This culture lingered on for decades. It reached into the Alberta legislature, where former premier Peter Lougheed had no fear of losing popular support for describing people as divided into two broad classes. There were "doers," who were the good guys. Then there were "the critics," who included "the Toronto-NDP crowd."

Binney proved himself to be a natural doer with one of those Americans. Binney was a high-school graduate - a rarity in the West in those days - and put his education to work. His rig boss was an Indian from Oklahoma likely named after his hometown Norman, John Norman. "I was 18. 1 weighed 135 pounds. He called me into the doghouse (rig mini-office), closed the door and said, 'Can you read?' I said yes. He pulled out a newspaper and had me read him the funnies. He said, 'Can you write? Can you add?' I said yes. He said, 'Write my name in this book.' I did. I became his bookkeeper." It was worth a quick promotion to derrickman, with a 25% raise to $7.50 a day. Binney's knack for jumping on opportunities earned him another trade and promotion after he and two friends quit the rigs in 1942 to join the Royal Canadian Navy. His chance came in Newfoundland, with a transfer from cleaning ship boilers to be a "swamper" or assistant to a welder whose trade carried the rank of petty officer. The welder preferred to relax and taught his helper to do the work. Binney learned so well that he passed welding tests and rose to petty officer. He also won his wife, Sally, in St. John's. Discharged from the navy in Calgary in 1945, Binney immediately landed a rig job from an American toolpusher who held military service in high esteem. Then the drilling rush set off by the Leduc discovery multiplied chances for rapid advancement among those who mastered the oilfield culture. Get it right, and promotions could be instantaneous. Binney's big step up to supervisory rank came when he showed his stuff as a doer while working as a driller or noncommissioned officer on a rig. The bit got stuck down in the hole. Binney made a suggestion. The irritated boss told him to take off, then drove off himself to cool off with a beer. Binney took a chance. He tried his idea. It worked. By the time the prickly boss came back, the rig was running again. He called the daring junior over to his car (he always drove a big Packard in keeping with the formidable stature of an oilfield chief, Binney recalls). "He said, 'You think you're a smart S-O-B don't you.' I said, 'Sometimes yes and sometimes no.' He said, 'Well, now you're the toolpusher (captain) of this rig.' I advanced rather quickly after that." Binney rose up the drilling outfit's ranks into management and moved to Calgary. Renamed Hi-Tower, the firm was eventually bought by the Seaman brothers' Bow Valley Industries. Binney became senior vice-president and a director of the parent firm, involved in operations from the Arctic to the North Sea. It was as far as he could go in a family outfit.

Don took early retirement in 1978 when the Anglican Church made him an offer to follow one of his family's traditional callings, the ministry. An ancestor was the first Canadian Bishop of Nova Scotia. Binney retired again at age 65 in 1987 after serving in church executive roles but remained a household name and popular figure in his community. While fans including the Seamans call him the oilpatch pastor, he makes no such big claim. He just practises the oilfield culture. Be there when needed. Be competent. "A lot of guys I worked with are churchgoers but they don't go around with a badge on saying they go every Sunday. When they turn feet up and there has to be a funeral, they call on me." Rather than preach, Binney serves a brotherhood. In the oil and gas community, "you bond together as a family to get it done."

(Strictly speaking Rt Rev Hibbert Binney was not an ancestor. He was Don's grandfather's first cousin.)

Short biography of Donald Binney on Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame