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April 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

SPOTLIGHT

FORGING links with the ENERGY INDUSTRY

Integrated land management— and the forest industry forging new links with the energy industry in Alberta—is resulting in fibre being saved and further protection of the forest land base in the province.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Photo by Jim Parkin (bigstockphoto.com)

The forest industry and the energy industry are forging new links in Alberta. Forest company Canfor has signed the first-ever agreement encompassing an entire Forest Management Area (FMA) to jointly plot an operating plan with an oil and gas company, specifically energy giant Suncor. This means that the companies will co-operate on such activities as building resource roads, replanting trees on well sites and seismic lines, and protecting wildlife habitat in the area southeast and north of Grande Prairie, Alberta, which covers 650,000 hectares.

However, why was such an agreement necessary and even possible?

Alberta’s resource industries got an alarming wake-up call in the late-1990s when a research tool showed that resource development on the provincial land base was having a significant impact on the natural ecology and contributing to diminished forested lands.

The Alberta Landscape Cumulative Effects Simulator (ALCES) was developed by Brad Stelfox, who was working out of the University of Alberta in collaboration with Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries (Al- Pac), with sponsorship from the federal and provincial governments. The ALCES model demonstrated the magnitude of cumulative effects that resource users were having. It also showed that future growth could have a profound effect on business and ecology, particularly in northern Alberta where energy exploration and oil sands development is very intense.

One of the noteworthy impacts relating to the forest industry was a gradual and significant loss of wood fibre. This was mainly due to duplication of roads and land management practices by the energy and pipeline industries that did not encourage forest regeneration.

In addition to generating a reality check, ALCES also helped to lend credibility to an initiative launched in the mid- 1990s that is now being championed by the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR), called the Integrated Landscape Management (ILM) project. ILM provides a model for industry to follow so that it can continue development, while reducing its impact on the environment through co-operation and collaboration.

While Al-Pac has been a strong promoter of ILM since the get-go, its motivation hasn’t been entirely altruistic—for good reason, considering what it stands to lose given the level of energy exploration activity in northeastern Alberta.

The vast majority of the expected $50 billion in oil sands capital investment is happening within its FMA. In addition to the considerable amount of seismic exploration activity that also removes fibre from its land base, this activity threatens to have a significant impact on the company’s fibre supply. It needed to co-ordinate its efforts with exploration companies and oil sands developers on their approach to clearing and reclaiming the land base under their management control.

A number of major forest companies with operations in Alberta and the energy industry now see ILM as a viable co-ordination tool. ACR has allocated $4.5 million to ILM and is targeting a 15 per cent reduction in future industrial impact.

Program manager Bob Demulder says some ILM programs between forestry companies and the oil and gas industry are seeing as much as a 33 per cent industrial impact reduction. Over the past decade, there has definitely been progress toward implementing many ILM projects. At present, there are between 30 and 50 projects directly related to ILM objectives, and interest is growing, especially within industry.

Don Pope, land management forester at Al-Pac and seconded industrial stream lead for the ILM Program with land operations at the Alberta Sustainable Resource Development Department, is an unapologetic crusader for the ILM cause in Alberta. He says a major change over the past decade has been a significant “buy-in” by key members of the oil and gas industry.

“The oil industry has recognized the impact that they are having on the forest industry to the extent that they are willing to change and do something about it,” says Pope.

Their motivation isn’t entirely altruistic either, he says, as many ILM projects offer cash savings in reduced infrastructure costs.

Many forest companies have noticed the positive results that can be achieved in preserving fibre supply, largely based on Al-Pac’s work as a forerunner to implementing ILM with other stakeholders within its FMA. For example, through the use of low impact seismic exploration within Al-Pac’s FMA, 7,300 kilometres of seismic line was constructed in 2004 on 1,800 hectares of land versus 5,200 kilometres of seismic line on 4,600 hectares of land in 1998. In other words, 40 per cent more seismic line was cut in 2004, but on about 60 per cent fewer acres. That’s primarily because the seismic lines are not as wide.

West Fraser Timber in Hinton, Alberta, has also implemented a similar low impact seismic program and is coordinating more of its forest management plans with energy and mining companies who share its land base.

“Everybody involved in the forest industry in Alberta today is involved in the implementation of ILM concepts to some degree,” says Demulder.

The main payback for provincial FMA holders is maintaining their forested land base over the long term, says Pope. “There’s not an FMA owner in the province that won’t tell you that their land base is slowly diminishing,” he says. “Forested lands are becoming less and less over time, not due to our activity, as much as activity by others.”

Co-ordinating plans for road construction is one almost immediate way that both the forestry and energy industries can realize significant savings. For example, an Al-Pac/Gulf-Surmont pilot project has projected 47 per cent fewer roads, or 104 kilometres, as well as $3 million in savings through integrating activities. This also results in a smaller resource industry footprint on the landscape.

An ILM research project showing a lot of promise is the well site reclamation project. This is a process whereby the merchantable fibre is harvested and the remaining fibre is mulched on a well site, followed by the creation of an ice pad similar to a skating rink to provide a solid foundation for a drilling rig. This is as opposed to the common practice of removing the topsoil from a well site then replacing it—after the drilling activity is complete—and seeding it over with clover to reclaim the site. Pope says by using the ice pad method, the soil and root base stays intact, the ice foundation melts in spring, and by the end of the following summer, the site has new poplar growing to heights as tall as one metre. It is essentially reclaiming itself back into a forest.

“We’re trying to encourage the oil and gas industry to return these sites to the equivalent capability of what it was before,” says Pope, “and that means a forest. It doesn’t mean a bunch of clover growing on a well site.”

Smaller forest companies harvesting fibre from quotas rather than FMAs are less enthusiastic about ILM for monetary reasons. They really want the salvage wood derived from well sites and pipeline easements, because in the past this wood has not been considered part of their annual allowable cut, and has become a bit of a cash cow for them.

Under ILM operating guidelines, this may not be the case in future, as the ILM process is expected to be legislated by the province in 2006, according to statements in the last Throne Speech.

Other stakeholders with concerns about ILM taking root as part of the province’s permanent land base management system are cattle owners used to securing leases from the province to pasture their cattle on forested land near their homes, regardless of how the cattle might damage the ecosystem and impact on biodiversity. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who may see their activities curtailed in certain areas, are also concerned.

“Everywhere, any time, all the time, isn’t going to continue to be the norm,” says Pope, who owns four dirt bikes of his own.

While industry seems primed to adopt ILM as standard operating procedure for managing the land base, there was a perceived need to bring people with authority in government up to speed on what is happening in the field in terms of existing ILM projects and principles.

Because of ongoing discussions about best practices in land base management in government, Demulder says it was important to show people in government how successfully ILM was being implemented, “so that they don’t cook up something that doesn’t work.”

That is one reason why Pope has been seconded for two years from industry to work part-time with the provincial government. He says there still are some in government who are wary that ILM might be an attempt by the forest industry to simply circumvent existing regulations and acquire more wood. They are also less eager to embrace change. For example, although the government has been working toward adopting a new land-use framework, it has been working to rewrite geophysical regulations for that framework for the past seven years.

Pope describes his role as being a catalyst. “Change in government normally takes 10 years,” he says. “In reality, we’re trying to bring about change in three.”

 

 

 


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