When embarking on a new pipeline installation project, contractors must ensure the jobsite is ready to go. Along miles of approved right of way, specialized machinery devours the flora found along the pipeline’s route. Tree trunks become sawdust. Underbrush turns to mulch. Tall grass is cut down to size.
Right of way clearing machines, such as track mulchers, grinders, chippers, tree trimmers and mowers, level the path in preparation for the arrival of the big equipment used for installing oil and gas pipelines. Rather than collecting the brush into a pile and burning it, the spoils from clearing machinery can be used in other capacities. These specialized brutes must be tough enough to chew through miles of growth one day, then turn around and do it again the next. A farm tractor isn’t going to cut the mustard on these jobsites.
Some of the top concerns of contractors involved with right of way clearing are machine toughness, dealer support, availability of parts and resale value, according to Collin Watts, of Watts Projects Facility and Pipeline Construction, based in Red Deer, Alberta. Watts’ company is a small-inch pipeline contractor that performs the majority of its own clearing and mulching on project rights of way. He says more than 95 percent of his work is related to oil and gas pipelines, with most of the work coming from oil and gas producers building gathering systems.
“We use an excavator-based mulcher with a 400-hp hydraulic power pack and a mulching head on the end of the boom as our ‘Swiss Army knife’ of machines,” Watts says. “It can be used in just about any ground condition, such as rocky ground, soft conditions, steep slopes and deep snow. You name it, and it can work its way through it.”
The size of the equipment has become of greater concern for right of way contractors, according to Bill Schafer, product manager of the VM Logix product line for Loftness Specialized Equipment. Tight locations may require a smaller footprint.
“Pipeline rights of way must have ground-to-sky clearance so that the pipeline can be viewed from airplanes,” Schafer says. “There is a wide variety of equipment that can be used to achieve that goal. Many pipeline rights of way are very narrow, so compact equipment is often needed to access and service the jobsites. Additionally, some pipelines have restrictions for maximum ground pressure exerted by equipment, so the use of compact equipment helps contractors stay within those limitations, too.”
Machine power is another concern for end-users, says Dan Chaput, regional manager for Prinoth Ltd. In his perspective, the higher the horsepower, the better.
“When you’re clearing a virgin right of way, you need the highest horsepower machine you can get your hands on,” he says. “If you’re knocking down trees, mulching and prepping the right of way for pipelayers and other equipment, you need machines above 400 hp.”
Right of way clearing and maintenance is a strong market that appears to be trending upward, Watts says. Contractors face stiff competition and must balance resources.
“It can be a very price competitive industry, so you have to balance speed of the job vs. limitations of the equipment and manpower,” Watts says. “Skilled manpower is another challenge. Project permits are becoming a major hurdle and are delaying starts on jobs, it seems more and more.”
A Specialized Market
Right of way clearing contractors are a specialized breed, and they require a higher level of durability from their equipment.
“It is a specialized field and is becoming more specialized,” says James Farquhar, district manager for forestry equipment manufacturer Tigercat. Because of the nature of the work, most contractors tend to own their fleets, rather than relying on rentals.
“We own all of our equipment,” Watts says, “but we have rented in the past when some larger projects have come about. We have also hired subcontractors to help if required.”
The rental side of the business trends more toward new entrants to right of way work, according to Heidi Boyum, president of Jarraff Industries, manufacturer of the Geo-Boy line of brush cutters and other forestry equipment.
“The renters usually have a small job or are just getting their feet wet,” Boyum says. “They’re learning about mechanical trimming or part of a job is requiring it, and they don’t want to take on a big commitment with the capital expenditure it would take. But renters are few and far.”
With the majority of end-users looking to buy, Farquhar says it’s important that right of way clearing machinery is reliable and backed up by manufacturer or dealer service support.
“Right of way contracts are often time sensitive,” Farquhar says. “Mechanical reliability, a high level of dealer support and ease of maintenance all contribute to increased machine availability, which is very important. Operator comfort and visibility is also very important. Daily operating costs, such as fuel, fluids and wear parts, should also factor into the purchase decision.”
Another factor contractors may want to consider is how the mulching head is powered, Chaput says. Some manufacturers offer a mechanically driven head, rather than one driven by hydraulics. If the hydraulic power is taken off the machine’s engine, it could result in a loss in efficiency.
However, most hydraulically driven heads use a dedicated hydraulic pump to avoid losing productivity, says Giorgio Carera, CEO of FAE USA Inc.
Machine safety and size also factor into the decision making process.
With all these considerations about machines, right of way contractors also face the issue of changing methodology, Watts says. Before these machines became durable enough to handle the job, the conventional way to clear rights of way was to burn the foliage in piles, but there are risks with this method.
“Another major issue in right of way clearing is getting buy-in from the client to mulch instead of pile and burn,” Watts says. “Many clients believe it is cheaper to pile and burn brush, but they don’t really take everything into account.”
Watts points to liability issues such as a fire getting out of control or pollution concerns related to carbon dioxide emissions from burning the wood.
“At first glance, mulching can appear to be more expensive, but when accounting for everything in a fair comparison, it outperforms conventional clearing methods,” Watts says. “As new technologies are developed in brush mulching, it is becoming the best way of dealing with brush in both new clearing and maintenance work.”
Mulching is more economical and better for the environment, according to Lee Smith, product manager at FAE USA Inc. “It is more economical, more environmentally friendly and allows usable wood to still be saved for other uses,” he says. “Land clearing is for sure a specialized field.”
Clearing Out the Machine
Because right of way clearing machinery deals with a high level of airborne debris, daily maintenance is paramount to keep the equipment in tip top shape.
Watts says daily maintenance by the operator and spot inspections by the fleet manager are important steps in keeping machines running strong.
“If it needs something in the way of fixing or parts, fix it now,” Watts says. “If an operator thinks for a second that you aren’t super particular with your equipment, they … let things slide to the point that a small problem becomes a major one.”
Daily routine maintenance includes greasing, checking belt tension, cleaning debris out the engine area and radiator, checking fluid levels such as coolant, fuel and oil, inspecting hoses and checking all moving parts. Manufacturers recommend reading the operator’s manual for additional maintenance tips.
“In general, checking the equipment every single day for debris, tightness, leaks and any potential hazards is important,” Boyum says. “Debris is a big one. Sawdust is big problem. [Make sure to get] around the machine a couple times a day to make sure everything is in proper order.”
Farquhar says that mulched material can become dry and flammable.
“Machine fires are devastating,” he says. “By minimizing the amount of material that enters the machine, the risk of fire is also reduced and cooling system components work more effectively.”
Perhaps the most important item to check is the cutting component “to keep the blades sharp for maximum performance and efficiency,” Schafer says.
Rotating parts should be free from debris and able to turn without restriction. “You don’t want anything to be unbalanced,” Chaput says.
A Growing Field
Just like the expected increase in new pipeline construction over the next few years, so too is right of way clearing and maintenance work trending upward. With the increase in domestic oil and gas production in North America from the oil sands and shale formations, contractors are seeing more jobs to bid and manufacturers are experiencing increased demand.
“We’re as busy as we’ve ever been,” Boyum says. “Every year, we’re having to increase production due to demand.”
Boyum says it’s important to be proactive about maintaining rights of way in the event of any incident that requires accessing the infrastructure.
“Keeping things mowed and cleared makes it easy to access the pipeline,” Boyum says. “A lot of overgrown brush can make it hard to recognize where things are.”
Pipeline construction and right of way work are directly related, Chaput says. “The more pipelines they build,” he says, “the more clearing out is needed at the beginning of a project and the more clearing is needed to maintain the right of way afterward.”
Right of way maintenance is an ongoing concern for pipeline operators, Farquhar says. Regular upkeep is an important aspect of pipeline integrity.
“The operator of the pipeline is required to keep the right of way accessible and visible in order to be able to spot line breaks and possible leaks,” Watts says. “This can be done by periodic clearing by way of mulching or if left too long an entire logging operation may have to be employed to clear the right of way. One of the main differences of working on an existing pipeline right of way as opposed to new construction is the flowing pipeline underneath the machines. Safe work procedures must be enforced when working over existing hot lines.”
As demand for new pipelines increases, the work for right of way contractors will follow suit. Tough, durable machines will be in high demand to chomp through overgrown bush to create a clear working space to install the miles of pipe needed to get the product to market.
Bradley Kramer is the managing editor of North American Oil & Gas
Pipelines. Contact him at email@example.com.