Is there a right way to clear right-of-ways?
While it has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the area’s economy, BC Hydro probably didn’t calculate the impression left by the burning of piles of wood along the right-of-way of its 344 kilometre-long Northwest Transmission Line.
And with pipeline companies now planning to clear several thousand kilometres of their own right-of-way to supply natural gas to planned liquefied natural gas plants, the goal of securing broad public acceptance of major industrial projects might rest with how to better deal with the wood that will be cut.
“It’s public knowledge that there was lots of merchantable timber that was simply burned,” says Dan Schweng, operations director for Nass Area Enterprises, the business arm of the Nisga’a Nation in the Nass Valley, which received a BC Hydro contract to clear a 120-kilometre stretch of the 344 kilometre-long transmission line.
“Everyone experienced their own version of wasted wood,” he said of First Nations companies who had direct award clearing contracts with BC Hydro.
Schweng estimates the Nisga’a company sent 40,000 cubic metres to market, but he still rues the inability to manage large quantities of wood burned because it was too costly to remove.
“Half the time you are working between a swamp and a 60 degree side slope,” he said. “And you don’t want to be the guy going ‘I need more time because I need to separate these logs and put them here’ when you have 60 pieces of machinery bearing down on you.”
With different planning, he said, “green logging” operations on future rights-of-way might result in more wood being sent to mills.
“Maybe with the luxury of time to plan a guy could give it some creative thought. I think if we had more time in advance we could have placed more time planning areas that had marginal economics.”
Terrace-based forestry consultant Rick Brouwer wants pipeline and other energy companies to view the wood along rights-of-way not as an obstacle but instead as an important resource that must be handled diligently.
“Sometimes they don’t get the advice to think to consider it,” says Brouwer. “I don’t think BC Hydro was thinking ‘bugger that, I’m going to burn the wood’, I think they just never got the advice. They take their social licence very seriously, too.”
Brouwer believes that with some planning, money allocated for stacking and burning wood could be used instead for piling it at specific locations for logging contractors to pick up.
“On the NTL [Northwest Transmission Line], they should have looked at the mechanisms. They could have been up on Highway 37 and said ‘hey we’ve got wood’ and gone to Skeena Sawmills or Kitwanga or Smithers and said ‘hey what will you pay for it’, and they could have said ‘we’ll take it at the roadside and we’ll pay two bucks a metre for it’ because they had to burn it anyway.”
Schweng acknowledged the fine line between profit and the greater good for the environment and society, saying a balance must be struck.
And he said profit margins were tight along the transmission line route to begin with.
“All those contractors were working on the NTL with no margins, and there was not a dollar to be conceded by the contractors. BC Hydro did a very good job getting the best price out of all of us.”
The planning overseen by BC Hydro was based on typical forestry cutblocks and should have focused more on the realities of right-of-way clearing, said Schweng.
“The approach they took on a technical planning level was the same approach a forester would take when doing conventional logging, which doesn’t work. A cut block is one big thing...but on a right-of-way you are clearing something and logging in a little tiny ribbon the size of your driveway,” he said .
The reality is that the energy companies cutting rights-of-way would have to pay higher rates to subsidize the responsible care for the timber resource, he said.
“We are all going to have to go through the same thing next year or the year after. And we’re all going to say why did all that good wood get burned.”
The reasons for the burning of timber and other woody debris along the NTL route were complex. BC Hydro said some wood was of poor quality and that saleable wood was burned because it was uneconomical to haul out of secluded areas.
“In the first year of clearing, much of the material harvested was either poor quality, the market desire for the timber was low or the distances were such that it would have actually cost contractors to transport it to market or processing facilities,” said BC Hydro representative Lesley Wood of work done in 2012.
By the second year, however, contractors managed to bring more to market after Skeena Sawmills was re-opened after a multi-year closure.
According to Brouwer, energy company executives in Calgary planning pipelines to the coast may not be aware of what they can do to save wood and not burn it.
While the width of pipeline and other rights-of-way is between 15-50 metres, the total area when combined with the length comprises a significant area.
Taken at an average of 30 metres, Enbridge’s planned Northern Gateway pipeline, which would run 1,177 kilometres, would take up approximately 3,516 hectares. This is equivalent to 176 average sized forestry cut blocks.
In reality the total right-of-way will be wider than that, when the permanent and temporary work space requirements are considered.
“Our proposed right-of-way is on average 25 metres of temporary workspace and 25 metres permanent right-of-way. An additional 10 per cent of permanent right-of-way will be used as extra temporary work space for storage of pipe and equipment,” said Enbridge communications manager Ivan Giesbrecht.
Enbridge’s strategy for managing timber is contained in a salvage plan submitted along with its environmental application.
Not all timber is fit for harvest and companies choose routes that pass over land that has already been disturbed by other industrial activity or choose to cross agricultural land.
Still, a significant quantity of wood exists along the pipeline routes. On the NTL, 495,000 cubic metres of merchantable deciduous and coniferous wood was cleared.
By late last year, clearing operations for the 463-kilometre Pacific Trails Pipeline project, which would carry natural gas to the planned Chevron/Apache Kitimat LNG plant, had already brought in 455 logging truck loads to Skeena Sawmills in Terrace and North Coast Log Handling Ltd. in Kitimat, totalling 19,100 cubic metres.
Hardy Friedrich from the provincial government’s oil and gas commission said small cutting permits for tree and vegetation removal related to investigation of proposed routes have been completed for Spectra’s 850-kilometre Westcoast Connector and TransCanada’s 750-kilometre Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project, both of which are for planned LNG plants in Prince Rupert; as well as for Trans Canada’s 650-kilometre Coastal GasLink project which would feed the Canada LNG plant at Kitimat.
Spectra Energy has been working at figuring out its right-of-way plans with company official Franca Petrucci telling the Fort St. James council just last month that it plans to work with logging companies along the route of its line.
Brouwer said these companies need to understand the forest type changes and the logistics of distance.
“A pipeline going through a coastal forest is going through a forest with 800 cubic metres per hectare whereas a pipeline going through an interior forest is going through a forest with 350 cubic metres per hectare. They don’t know they are dealing with twice the amount of debris,” he said.
Also, the distance logging companies are willing to travel to pick up wood varies with market conditions.
Right now a bio-energy company probably wouldn’t go farther than 100-200 kilometres to collect their wood. And a timber company wouldn’t go farther than 200 to 300 kilometres to collect at roadside, said Brouwer.
With multiple pipelines under consideration and after seeing the NTL clearing done along Hwy37 North near his home community, Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine director for Telegraph Creek David Brocklebank thinks shared corridors make sense.
“Why disturb so much of the landscape environmentally, habitat, all the rest, when they are all coming from a common general area. Why so scattered?” Brocklebank wonders.