Eight years ago Gordon Menard formed a company with an almost inconceivable dream — to prevent oil spills or halt their progress.
“In 1983 I was standing on a ship in the Beaufort Sea and I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a major oil spill happened in those Arctic waters,” he said. “It was a helpless feeling, standing there and watching the water.”
He formed his company, Can-Gel, with the belief that “there must be some way to do it. And the only way you could stop [leaking oil from spreading] is to turn it into jelly.”
Menard’s quarter century in the oil business began at the age of 17 in Saskatchewan when he went out to a rig with his brother.
“You can’t tell them you are under 18,” his brother said.
Menard told the boss he was 19, who said workers had to weigh more than 180 pounds.
“I said I weighed 140,” he smiled, “but I can outwork any of you guys.”
He started the next day.
He was working in Alberta, south of Grande Prairie, when he was asked to go to work on his employer’s first offshore drilling rig.
“I said no, but my supervisor said if I didn’t take the offer he would never talk to me again.”
The job led to others and his resume includes stints in the Mediterranean, North and Beaufort seas.
Home base for Menard, Charlotte and their daughter was Caroline, Alta. After 25 years of working on oil rigs, he was ready for a change. He had already purchased land in the Creston Valley and was buying machinery and purebred cattle, readying himself for a return to farming life.
“I hadn’t been throwing my hard-earned money away,” he said.
With the nagging feeling that there had to be a solution to prevent oil spills, or to better clean up the mess than using dispersants to break up the viscous liquids, he began talks with a chemical company. It already had come up with a solution to create gels, but was using it for other things.
“They never got in the way of what we were doing. They didn’t want anything to do with all the paperwork and bureaucracy necessary for what I wanted to accomplish.”
As he gathered a team around him, including a chemical engineer and Christine Proskow, who had become a friend while she did his paperwork for hay exports, he came up against a routine objection.
“I was told that if you find something you want to do, there are 10 guys in the way who will say you can’t.”
He brought people on board who believed in the idea, and got support from the National Research Council of Canada, which provided money to finance necessary tests.
“When we learned we could gel hydrocarbons in open water, that was exciting,” he said.
Equally important? “We knew the process was reversible.”
Imagine an oil spill on water, where a spray almost instantly turns the oil into a gel, which can then be captured much more easily than the liquid form. Then, almost magically, the oil can be returned to its liquid form.
“I never worried about the dollars. It has always seemed like, ‘We are just doing this.’ I have a lot of money invested out of my own pocket, but I am more interested in seeing my partners benefit from their hard work and belief that we can make a difference in this world.”
Today, Menard said, the company is “right on the edge of making money,” and has been invited to the Global Transformation Forum running this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has also had inquiries from India and met with officials on the West Coast.
“They are talking about us already,” he grinned.
In addition to coming up with the gel process, Menard’s team has designed injection systems that introduce the chemicals to hydrocarbons in tanks on land or sea, quickly slowing or stopping leakage.
Can-Gel (the corporation is called Global Endeavours Ltd.), Menard said, has the potential to change the hydrocarbon transportation industry, and to protect the environment from harmful spills and leaks. Even more important, he said, is that the solution is not harmful to birds or fish, and he has the scientific studies to prove it.
“I am excited about what this can do for the planet, and for our team,” he said. “They are such good people.”