Land Clearing Companies Busier Now More Than Ever
There is growth in the North American oil and gas pipeline land clearing and right-of-way maintenance market thanks to two factors: The shale boom and a renewed focus on pipeline integrity.
To take a closer look at how the industry has grown and where companies decide to work, we contacted Phillips & Jordan’s Oil & Gas Group, Asplundh Tree Expert Co. and Bolin Enterprises Inc. (BEI).
“In the last five years, the shale boom has created a huge new market in short, gathering line market. You are seeing a lot of pipelines that are in the 1- to 5-mile range and we bid far more of those than we do cross country transmission lines or lateral lines,” says John West, vice president of pipeline services at Phillips & Jordan. “It is a whole new market that opened up and brought in new players. It’s created an opening for new, smaller companies, to get into the right of way clearing business.”
West, started in the pipeline clearing and right-of-way (ROW) maintenance sector 10 years ago and says that today there is more bidding for ROW maintenance than ever thanks in part to the heightened awareness of pipeline integrity.
This is something Tom Mayer, Asplundh vice president, agrees with.
“The need for ROW clearing and reclamation is growing,” he says. “To maintain pipeline integrity and safety, operators have to consider both the current and future rights of way that will require ongoing vegetation management after the initial clearing. With trees and brush it’s never just once and done.”
Both Phillips & Jordan and Asplundh serve pipelines across the continent on both the ROW clearing and maintenance fronts and from small local lines to larger cross-country projects. BEI, on the other hand bids some ROW clearing, but about 95 percent of its focus is on maintenance in the Midwest and Tennessee Valley regions. However, Michael “Bo” Bohannon, operations manager for BEI, sees an increase in business because of pipeline integrity scrutiny.
“The increased supply and demand (for oil and gas) has led to an increased effort to maintain pipeline ROWs,” he says. “It’s just good business to do, they have to keep the ROW clear in order to do more efficient maintenance activities to uphold the integrity of the pipelines.”
A clear ROW, among other things, is more noticeable than one that is overgrown and equates to less encroachment on the ROW by property owners. The cleared areas also make it easier to access the pipeline for maintenance; perform aerial, foot or vehicle patrols; makes pipeline signage more visible and makes the lines easier to access and respond to a pipeline release.
“From my perspective, one, if you have a maintained right of way and you have an issue with the pipe where you may have to do a dig to repair a section or test a section, if you have a cleared, maintained right of way, it makes access easier and quicker,” West says. “The other thing, and I am saying this as a citizen, if I see a right of way that is well-maintained, it gives the public a sense of confidence that the pipeline is safe. It reassures the public that this is a professional organization.”
Increased work is great, assuming all of your equipment and employees are working at their peak operating capabilities. That requires proper equipment maintenance and safety vigilance.
“There are several components to ensure a safe right-of-way clearing project,” Bohannon says. He lists qualified and experienced personnel, qualified operators, tailgate safety meetings, proper personal protective equipment and familiarity with terrain as the chief traits.
“A safe project starts with a ‘culture of safety’ that is supported by all levels of our management. It begins with a team of field personnel and equipment operators who pass the required qualification screens, but it continues with classroom and on-the-job training,” Mayer says. “Actual on-site safety involves daily job and project briefings, often in conjunction with a pipeline representative, hazard identification and awareness, equipment and tool inspections, job behavior observations by trained safety personnel, as well as continuous on-the-job training.”
Similar protocol is in place at Phillips & Jordan, which has led to more than 3.1 million consecutive man-hours without a lost time accident on a pipeline job and a trio of pipeline superintendents earning safety awards from the Pipe Line Contractors Association.
“It’s a great marketing tool. You can sit down with a prime contractor or pipeline owner and you can lay out a very in-depth detailed safety plan,” West says. “Then you have the results in the 3.1 million man hours and the three awards. That’s a huge selling point.”
Performance is Key
Looking at performance, there are several steps to ensure equipment downtime does not occur and if it does the time is minimal. All of this revolves around daily equipment inspections and following the manufacturer’s suggested maintenance schedule.
“A good daily inspection and maintenance program, along with well-trained equipment operators will prevent the majority of equipment failures,” Mayer says. “Each project should have adequate support vehicles that are stocked with parts and supplies necessary to maintain on-site equipment. Also, contacts should be made with local vendors and repair shops, prior to start-up, to handle emergency repair situations.”
For instance, Phillips & Jordan has a mechanic on every project who checks equipment during the daily jobsite safety analysis and several roving master mechanics assigned by region. Between the two, many equipment-related issues receive attention in the field. If that does not work, the shop facilities in Knoxville, Tennessee; Williston, North Dakota; Douglas, Wyoming; and Zephyrhills, Florida, can tackle tougher repair issues.
“You have to identify a problem quickly and remedy it, whether it is taking a machine off the job and replacing it with another machine or supplementing the job with additional mechanical support,” West says. “It’s such a fast-paced industry that you have to move quickly to identify and remedy issues that pop up.”
With its heavy reliance on skid steers, Bohannon points out that overheating the equipment is a constant concern. His crews are fastidious about checking the engine area for accumulated dirt and debris. Not doing so can cook an engine or, worse yet, cause a fire.
An operator or mechanic’s eyes and ears can go only so far and Asplundh and Phillips & Jordan both rely on telematics equipment to monitor engine equipment.
“It’s amazing the tools that are available to our mechanical support these days,” West says. “You can hook a machine to your laptop and receive a variety of data from fuel burn and oil to how the machine is operating and it allows so much more lead time on the preventive maintenance side of things.”
All three companies also employ telematics to monitor its on-highway fleets, monitoring driver performance and changing the way companies bid for projects.
“Asplundh uses telematics to track equipment assets, as well as using it to determine equipment maintenance cycles, fuel consumption, equipment utilization, downtime and other equipment-related project data that helps us operate efficiently and safely,” Mayer says.
A good example of this, West explained, is if Phillips & Jordan bids a project in Utah, the person bidding the work knows that the nearest crew is in Colorado, where a project is wrapping up. From there, they can also tell, from mechanic’s notes, how many pieces of equipment can make the trip to Utah and how many need maintenance. This information is transferred to the bid, allowing Phillips & Jordan to maintain its stated timeline.
As the job growth continues, there is a need for land clearing specialists to both clear the way and then maintain what is left behind.
“The tremendous growth taking place in the oil and gas industries has increased the need for qualified employees to perform ROW clearing and maintenance activities, as well as the ability to supply and support multiple work sites around North America,” Mayer says.
Mike Kezdi is assistant editor at Benjamin Media Inc. and a contributing staff editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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