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Peak equipment performance
Tamarack Timber Services operates in the demanding oil patch salvage logging business in Alberta which—with drilling rigs costing out at $100,000 a day— requires logging equipment to perform within very defined production windows.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Ken and Donna Gauthier, owners of Tamarack Timber Services Ltd. in Cold Lake, Alberta, love a challenge and understand that to operate a successful oil patch salvage logging business, they must ensure that their equipment fleet is ready to perform on demand.
When it comes to logging, it’s hard for them to think of operating their business in any other way than serving their oil patch clients, often not knowing more than a day or two in advance whether they’ll be working that week and where.
When they are working, the nature of the oil and gas industry demands that they maximize efficiency and performance within a very defined production window. That’s because their clients aren’t making any money until the drilling rig punches a hole in the ground and the oil or gas starts flowing. Everything to that point is a cost to them.
“With the oil and gas sector, availability is huge,” says Ken. “We can’t break down. They don’t give us that option.”
Salvage logging for the oil patch is how they got started in the forest industry, and it continues to represent the lion’s share of their business except for harvesting a small amount of timber in areas where they own commercial timber licences. These areas are a bit of a hedge to help maintain cash flow when the oil patch is slow. They have never taken a logging contract with a forest company, although Ken says it’s something they may consider some day.
Business is steady in this part of northeastern Alberta where there is a high level of resource activity involving major companies like Canadian Natural Resources and Imperial Oil, despite the work flow being unpredictable on a week to week basis. The owners of Tamarack Timber Services have learned that to prosper, they have to accept how the industry operates, be prepared to go with the flow, or find another line of work.
Gauthier was an electrician in Edmonton for 17 years but took a chance to try his hand at logging in 1996 because he says it looked like an interesting business and Cold Lake seemed like a good place to raise a family.
“An opportunity came up to operate a line skidder up here for Imperial Oil and so we bought a skidder and came into it blind, not really knowing anything. It has been a learning curve ever since,” Ken says.
Not many would have the guts to take such a leap of faith, but Gauthier has no regrets, despite the ups and downs of the oil industry over the past decade. They also work close to home, meaning that Gauthier and his employees are home with their families every night.
Tamarack Timber Services subcontracts its services to Imperial Oil’s main civil construction company, Morgan Construction. The oil company operates a large in situ oil extraction enterprise north of Cold Lake. Because the oil resource in that part of Alberta’s oil patch is like a thick tar, the company uses steam to heat the raw bitumen so that it will flow to the surface and through pipelines to central processing facilities. To maximize recovery from a deposit that spans a large area in the boreal forest, Imperial Oil has an ongoing program to build new extraction sites, plant sites, access roads, and pipeline infrastructure to recover the oil. This is where its construction contractor and Tamarack Timber Services enter the picture.
The oil company salvages the timber from its road, rig pad, and pipeline easement construction program. Larger and smaller diameter softwood logs are given to the Cold Lake First Nations. The First Nations community manufactures wood products from the larger diameter logs, such as skids that are mostly sold back to the oil company. A wooden skid is a structure commonly used to prop up pipelines as they are being welded and a company with an aggressive pipeline program will consume thousands of skids every year.
The First Nations community processes the small diameter softwood logs into firewood. The recovered hardwood is also given to Cold Lake First Nations, and often the wood is sold to pulp producer, Alberta Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac). Tamarack Timber Services also sells the hardwood from its timber licences to Al-Pac.
Gauthier estimates that they produce about 1,000 truckloads of timber per year from their oil patch work, representing about 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes per year. Logging occurs for nine-and-a-half months, with the company employing 10 workers during peak winter construction season.
He explains that all salvage and construction activity revolves around the scheduling of the drilling rig. The construction contractor is notified by Imperial Oil that a drilling rig is scheduled to move to a specific location on a certain day.
Tamarack Timber Services is given a very specific time interval within the construction schedule to salvage timber on roads leading to the site and on the drilling rig pad site itself.
When Gauthier receives a call related to the scheduling of a drilling rig’s arrival to a specific site, he is under intense pressure to ensure that he has done his part of the construction work on time because it could cost Imperial Oil as much as $100,000 a day if a drilling rig sits idle due to construction delays. In other words, there is no margin for error taking into account potential equipment breakdowns, which is why Gauthier always has a back-up plan should any of his logging equipment break down.
Besides the pressure to salvage the logs within a specific window, there are two other aspects to salvage logging for the oil patch which is decidedly different than a logging contract. One is that Tamarack Timber Services is paid by the hour and not by the cubic metre delivered. Secondly, the logging company has no choice where it harvests the timber. Therefore both the merchantable and non-merchantable timber must be salvaged and decked within the easement boundaries provided by Imperial Oil.
So the company’s fleet must be versatile to handle all sizes and species of wood, as well as have the ability to work within tight spaces. It takes more finesse to log in this environment than pure speed. Roads are typically about eight metres wide, and a drilling rig pad site measures about 80 metres by 100 metres.
“We’re always cramped into small corners with no room to log,” says Gauthier. “It’s really challenging as far as trying to fit everything into the same space and there is usually equipment congestion. The biggest thing we try to do is minimize our impact as far as how much area we use to log.”
To accomplish that, Tamarack Timber Services operates the skidder and delimber together and constructs tall decks to minimize how much space they use. Also, by having these pieces of equipment working together, the operators are never working alone.
There is also a lot of muskeg in that area north of Cold Lake, so equipment size is a major consideration.
“In terms of equipment selection, we don’t want anything heavy because we are moving all the time and once we get on soft ground, if you have something too heavy and you get stuck, many times we are out working by ourselves and there is really nothing to pull us out,” says Gauthier. “So if you get a big buncher stuck, you might be there for quite a while.” Some muskegs can be as deep as five or six metres.
The variable terrain and soil conditions require a high degree of equipment versatility.
The company’s logging fleet consists of four feller bunchers. They have two older Tigercat 853 feller bunchers, an older John Deere 693 feller buncher, and a Koehring 625 feller buncher particularly for large diameter wood.
“The reason we are keeping our equipment older is that we don’t have to deal with any computers and new technology that we can’t service,” says Gauthier. “Since I do all the maintenance and repairs on the machines, I like to keep them simple.”
They have four delimbers. Two of the carriers are Komatsu 220LC-6 units with Lim-mit 2100 delimbers. They also have two stroke delimbers. One is a Denharco and the other a Denis 5300 on a Komatsu 220LC-2 carrier and a Komatsu 200LC-3 carrier. The Lim-mit delimbers perform best in long, straight timber, while the stroke delimbers seem to work better in a multiple stemming environment when they are processing a lot of firewood quality logs.
“We’ve had very good luck with the Komatsu carriers,” says Gauthier. “We have one that has 32,000 hours on it. They’ve got lots of parts for them and they’ve been very good for us. It seems that if anything is going to go sour on us with them, they give us a little bit of warning.”
They also operate a Tigercat 630A skidder and a Tigercat 630B skidder. Overall, Tamarack Timber Services has found that Tigercat equipment is very robust, easy to service, operator friendly, with good parts availability.
By operating equipment working at peak performance and having a back up in the event of a breakdown, Tamarack Timber Services has developed a system that works well.
“Last year we worked up here all season and we had the buncher down for four hours and a delimber down for two hours out of the whole season,” says Ken. “So our uptime is huge, and we pride ourselves on being there when they need us.”
Tamarack Timber co-owner Ken Gauthier left a career as an electrician to establish a successful salvage logging business with his wife, Donna, for the oil and gas industry.
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