Roger Lozeau stands at a key spot in North American geography. His company, Wolverine Construction, is located in Bonnyville, Alberta, about 150 miles east of Edmonton. To the south of his operations spreads two thousand miles of open prairie, crossing southern Canada, western United States, and northern Mexico. To the north of his company lies the continent’s largest forest, the boreal growth that runs from Alaska to the Atlantic coastline.
At this crucial junction, about 55 degrees north of the Equator, there’s still more to be found: below the meeting point of prairie and forest lies one of the world’s richest deposits of crude oil, known as the Athabasca oil sands. Nearly two trillion barrels of petroleum lie in these grounds, equal to the entire world’s standing reserves of oil.
“Oil is the lifeblood of Alberta,” says Lozeau. “One in twenty Albertans work directly in oil, while far more support the industry.” Lozeau is one such businessman who supports the extraction of this black gold: Wolverine Construction does not dig for crude itself, but supports many operations (large and small) that do by preparing land, building infrastructure, and carrying out seismic testing. “Our business makes it possible to drill with a greater certainty of success.”
Success is a key word since oil extraction in Alberta faces many big challenges. Many producers fear the dropping cost of crude itself, a commodity that responds to global economic forces well beyond the control of any one company or country.
What’s more, Albertan oil developers face the difficulty of transporting the product in one of two unpalatable directions: west, across one of the world’s largest mountain ranges; or east, where crude must be pumped across thousands of miles before it reaches a market of more than one million people.
“Our clients have a big list of the challenges that they need us to help solve,” says Lazeau.
A quick look at a geological map reveals the difficulty of clearing this land. Alberta is only the sixth-largest Canadian province, but that makes it larger than any U.S. state save Alaska and Texas.
Almost all of the 50,000 square miles of oil deposits, furthermore, are located not in the populated southern regions with good infrastructure, but in the virtually empty northern forests: hard enough to manage a fleet of 400-ton hauler trucks like the Caterpillar 797F on bare dirt; harder still to move them through trees, brush, and undergrowth.
“Our mulching teams have one of the hardest tasks in the industry,” says Lozeau. “Regulations state we can’t burn an area to open it up for development, since the laws on air pollution are strict. That means we’ve got to get in there and start clearing every square foot ourselves.”
Was it easier for Wolverine Construction when laws were more lax?
“No,” says Lozeau. “Clearing remains a challenge today, but the technology has gotten far better over time. The smaller bulldozers have gotten much better horsepower without getting heavier or more expensive. Communications are way better in the field, GPS makes it possible to target a region much more accurately. Mulching machines have also improved substantially. We use a Gyro-Trac mulcher that has a self-sharpening apparatus. It reduces the time and expense of keeping the blades ready for the field.”
Dull blades are less of a problem, says Lozeau, if the project is small: clear out some stubble and some weeds and you may never see any performance issues, since a mulcher’s reinforced steel is too sturdy for small plants to make much of an impact. When the task comes to turning an entire tree into sawdust, however, the quality of the tools in use becomes far more important.
“Our field crews used to have to spend time every morning sharpening the blades, maybe half an hour or an hour per machine, because the blades would be so dull from the previous day’s work.” Not only do the advanced machines that Wolverine Construction uses to literally pulverize trees do the job at a better clip, but they do the job that previously required several workers to get done.
“A mulcher like the GT-35 is a one-man rig,” says Lozeau. “You only need to train a worker on it and that one worker can spend the day clearing several acres for surveying, exploration, infrastructure, and extraction. Used to be that you’d need a bunch of guys at once, one to do the driving, one to do the cleaning, one to do the maintenance. Gyro-Trac has saved so much money just by keeping itself functional, on top of how quickly it can turn a tree into sawdust.”
If you are a homeowner who has tried to mulch a tree or grind a stump and found that a weekend project turned into a month-long project, you may be shaking your head in disbelief. Yet the proof is on display at Gyro-Trac’s own YouTube page, where they have impressive videos of mulching an entire tree in just seven seconds, or clearing twenty acres of forest in the span of two days. On top of its self-sharpening apparatus, these machines also feature spiral teeth that create a vacuum to suck up brush as it goes. The company also trumpets their machines’ pocket-size performances: less weight, less energy, and less fuel than the competitors, says Gyro-Trac.
Lozeau agrees. “For sure it’s improved Wolverine’s performance time,” says Lozeau. “We can complete projects in a day that used to take twice that long because of maintenance needs. The costs of mulching have dropped too.” It’s a rare advantage in a demanding industry where Wolverine is tasked with some of the hardest work on the hinterlands of Alberta.