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Nov  2003


Drilling for new wood markets

A hardwood mill in BC is finding a new market for its aspen in an unlikely place: the energy industry, which is now using wooden mats to extend the drilling season.

By Jim Stirling

Wood mats, manufactured with aspen from Four Rivers Hardwood Milling, are laid across muskeg areas, allowing access by drilling equipment during the warmer months. The mats distribute load weights, allowing access for heavy equipment and providing a safe and solid base for operations.

Developing new markets for wood products is never easy. Problems tend to be compounded when the species is aspen and the manufacturing site is the relative isolation of Fort Nelson in the northeastern corner of British Columbia. But for Four Rivers Hardwood Milling, help has come from the region’s dominant natural gas exploration and extraction industry.

In this neat symbiosis, Four Rivers utilizes its lower grade aspen while the gas industry receives a product that provides the huge advantage of extending the well drilling season into the summer months. Drilling for gas and oil—like timber harvesting—is traditionally a winter activity in this part of BC. When winter has gripped the region and solidified the ubiquitous swathes of swamp, muskeg and gumbo, both industries go into fast-forward mode. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a three-month window to get a year’s logs in the yard or complete a drilling program before spring’s sun returns the land to the black fly and mosquito. That’s pretty much been the situation until recently. Now, however, environmentally-friendly aspen mats are being laid across muskeg areas, allowing access by drilling equipment into the warmer months.

Jim Gunderson established Four Rivers Hardwood Milling about four years ago. “We have excellent aspen here,” he says. “It’s tall, straight and makes nice boards. But as a general rule, most of it goes into OSB production or pulp. We’re trying to develop other markets for it.” These include using the top quality outside layers of the aspen for furniture manufacturing and mouldings. “It makes great mouldings,” he adds. “Aspen has to be dried properly and that means slowly to get the sap out of the centre of the wood,” says Gunderson. In the summer, reducing the aspen moisture content to six per cent can take seven days of kiln drying by increasing temperatures gradually to about 140 degrees Celsius. “If you try and rush, it will case harden it and cause splitting.”

Gunderson points out that about 80 per cent of an aspen log is low-grade wood not ideally suited to furniture and mouldings. “It’s still solid wood, but it has knots and aspen stain too.” Disposal and utilization of some of those lower grade volumes was a problem until shortly after Brian Leslie came up to Fort Nelson from Calgary. “He looked around at the aspen and he could see the wood’s potential, “ says Gunderson. “Brian got the ball rolling with aspen mats for the oil industry.” Four Rivers contracts out the aspen harvesting, most of it coming within a 100-kilometre radius of Fort Nelson. (Four Rivers, incidentally, is named for the Muskwa, Prophet and Fontas that all join the Fort Nelson River near the town.)

The company’s small mill and ancillary functions employ about 20 people and delivers the aspen in 2x8 form for manufacture into mats. “We’re probably providing them with 40,000 to 50,000 board feet a day,” estimates Gunderson. Fortuitously, delivery costs are minimal. Where the mats are formed is pretty much across the road from the Four Rivers mill. Mighty Mats is now a division of Rocky Mountain Energy Services of Calgary and Fort Nelson. The company provides solutions to environmental challenges during well site and access road construction, drilling operations and pipeline installations. Rocky Mountain is, in turn, a subsidiary of Peak Energy.

Four Rivers Hardwood is supplying mat manufacturer Mighty Mats with upwards of 50,000 board feet a day. The mats are typically constructed in eight foot by 14-foot sections, six inches thick.

The Mighty Mats are typically constructed in eight foot by 14 foot sections, six inches thick or 8 x 16 x 6, although custom specs are available, points out Rocky Mountain’s Lynn Young. The mats are layered for durability and can be interlocked. They are also lightweight. “A light picker or a forklift can whip them around pretty good,” she notes. Their advantage is the ability to distribute load weights, allowing heavy equipment access and providing a safe and solid base for operational uses. From Rocky Mountain’s perspective, another advantage is that Mighty Mats are rented to customers, not sold. “A customer will phone us up and order so many thousands of them and we load and transport them where they’re needed.”

After a drilling lease has been accessed and work completed, the mats are reclaimed and returned for pick up by Mighty Mats. “Our major customer is EnCana Corporation, but we have been getting more inquiries from other companies lately,” reports Young. That’s not surprising. Good ideas get noticed. But using wooden mats to access difficult areas is not new technology. It’s been used in parts of the southern US oil patch for years. But it’s also not surprising EnCana is in the forefront of mat use in northeastern BC and Alberta. The company is Canada’s largest oil and gas producer and is expected to use at least 30,000 wooden mats during the summer of 2003 to help access up to 75 drill sites. EnCana believes using the aspen mats to allow the summer drilling program will save them money because there’s less demand for labour and equipment than in the hectic winter months.

EnCana is the number one player in the region and has scored a major coup by securing about 4,000 sections of land around Fort Nelson, focusing to the east of town on the massive Greater Sierra natural gas deposit. Greater Sierra is the region’s new Mecca. It’s estimated to contain five trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The reservoir is vast but extracting the gas is complicated by its geology. EnCana is using new drilling techniques and sinking a greater number of wells. Even then, Greater Sierra yields its rewards grudgingly.

The average well produces less than four million cubic feet of gas a day. Other regional fields have produced 25 times that rate. But the relatively slow production rate means the play should stay viable longer. And that’s good news for Four Rivers and the Fort Nelson economy: the company can keep producing the aspen boards required in mat manufacture for EnCana and other customers. And the breathing space it provides allows Four Rivers to continue developing its core business of aspen furniture manufacture and mouldings. Leslie started manufacturing what he dubbed Mighty Mats.

And while the original company structure has changed, the name remains and they’ve caught on in a big way. “For us, the matting program was excellent. It uses our lower grade wood and has worked out perfect for us. Mighty Mats has treated us very well,” says Gunderson. “And you don’t have to worry about the US duties.”

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