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Flying Quebec’s Plan Nord

If ever there were a megaproject tailor-made for helicopters’ unique capabilities, the Quebec government’s Plan Nord is it.


January 16, 2013
By Carroll McCormick

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If ever there were a megaproject tailor-made for helicopters’ unique capabilities, the Quebec government’s Plan Nord is it. An economic program encompassing 1.2 million square kilometres, from the 49th Parallel just north of Lac Saint-Jean to just beyond the 62nd Parallel at the northern tip of Quebec on the Hudson Strait, Plan Nord is a helicopter operator’s dream.

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The construction of new power lines will require helicopter surveys. (Photo courtesy of Héli-Boréal)


 

Unveiled on May 9, 2011, by Quebec’s Liberal government and reaffirmed by the recently elected Parti Québécois, Plan Nord is nothing less than a mission statement of new directions in the province’s economic development and future. Declared to be a 25-year effort to invest more than $80 billion in public and private money, including $1.625 billion between 2011 and 2016, it not only encompasses predictable goals such as mining, forestry, hydroelectric and infrastructure development, but also has environment, tourism, cultural and social dimensions.

The tableau on which this will play out is vast. “People cannot imagine how immense Quebec is. We can fly over forest for hours without getting a glimpse of civilization,” says Michel Séguin, chief pilot with Sept-îles-based Héli-Boréal, formed in 2006 by Carol Soucy. “Helicopters are the perfect first-line tools. The helicopter industry, as it relates to northern development, will reach its apogee before the whole of Plan Nord reaches its own.”

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Mineral exploration throughout the vast province of Quebec will mean extensive use of helicopters.
(Photo courtesy of Héli-Boréal)


 

Take mining development, for example. The government reported $958 million in mineral exploration and mining operations in 2009 and forecasts that there will be 31 operating mines by 2015 and 35 by 2020. A 2010 government map shows just over 100 exploration projects for 2010-2011.

Séguin has noted a sharp uptick in mining industry business since 2008. “Since 2008, we have been working more and more in the mining sector. It has accounted for 25 per cent of our activities in 2012.”

What he cannot say for certain, however, is whether any of its recent contracts have been spun out of Plan Nord. After all, the manifesto is a recent arrival on a long-established northern development landscape. “Plan Nord is like an inspiration that favours this development, but we have no contracts that have been awarded explicitly for this goal. We have several contracts that have an indirect or direct connection with the development of the north, but there are no stamps on them mentioning ‘Plan Nord certified.’ ”

Séguin anticipates that Héli-Boréal’s major customers, as Plan Nord unfolds, will be mining companies. Héli-Boréal flies seven Eurocopter AStar 350 B1, B2 and B3 helicopters and an EC-120. Tasks in the mining sector include aerial surveys, ferrying drills used to delineate deposits and transporting personnel such as engineers, land surveyors, investors and consultants.

“This summer, we conducted several drilling campaigns for numerous mining companies in the Shefferville, Fermont/Wabush and Sept-îsles regions. We have also worked on environmental studies between Sept-îsles and Shefferville,” Séguin says. “Each project consists of many phases that use helicopters.”

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Aerial geophysical surveys are taking place over thousands of square kilometres of Northern Quebec. (Photo courtesy of Héli-Boréal)


 

Strateco Resources, for example, used helicopters for drilling and prospecting in earlier phases of its uranium project in Matoush, about 275 kilometres north of Chibougamau. Helicopter companies working for the Stornoway Diamond Corporation have logged many hours in recent years supporting the exploration of 400,000 square kilometres of northern Quebec for diamonds for the Renard Diamond Project and 494 square kilometres of claims for its Aeon Project.

Renard, for which there is no road access, is 350 kilometres north of Chibougamau. The Aeon claims, 300 kilometres north of Renard, are even more remote. “Aeon was helicopter supported for till sampling and prospecting in 2011 using a Long Ranger,” says Nick Thomas, manager, investor relations, of Stornoway. “Any future work will also be helicopter supported as we don’t have roads or a camp nearby the area of interest right now.

“Renard is still very active in its use of helicopters – JetRangers and 206 LongRangers – in all of the engineering work and all the environmental work that has been going on in the last two years,” Thomas says. “We also rely on helicopters during the freeze-up and thaw-out times when we can’t use floatplanes for getting in and out of camp.”

New mines will need rail, road and port access, all of which are in short supply in northern Quebec. The only highways of note north of the 49th Parallel are Route 379 connecting Baie-Comeau to Labrador City, the top of Routes 167 and 113 that meet in Chibougamau, the last few kilometres of Route 109 to Matagami and local roads stretching to Chisasibi on James Bay’s eastern shore. There are also 51,000 kilometres of logging roads.

An Ambitious Goal
The Plan Nord action plan calls for the spending of $821 million for transportation infrastructure by 2016. For example, in February 2012 Transports Quebec began building a 240-kilometre extension of Route 167 to the Renard mine. When the extension is completed in the fall of 2013, construction at Renard, the province’s first diamond mine, will begin.

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Construction on Quebec’s first diamond mine will begin in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Stornoway Diamond Corporation)


 

Helicopters play an important role in northern highway projects, bringing equipment into otherwise inaccessible areas. In a project far to the east of Renard, for example, Héli-Boréal is involved in the extension of Route 138 eastward from Natashquan on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence, across from Anticosti Island.

“We have been working for three years on a block of work on the Route 138 extension. This summer we have been working in the La Tabatière sector to see to its successful conclusion studies for the location of the 138,” Séguin says.

Northern Quebec’s rail network, which currently spans 1,190 kilometres for transporting ore, appears likely to be extended to serve new mines. For example, in collaboration with five mining companies and in partnership with La Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, CN is looking at laying down a 550-kilometre railway from the mineral-rich Labrador Trough, which straddles northern Quebec and Labrador to Port Sept îsles. Although CN declined to comment on whether it uses helicopters in new railway projects, surely the challenges facing railroaders resemble those facing builders of remote highways, with helicopters standing by to help overcome them.

Powering Up the Landscape
The Plan Nord action plan mentions several studies that will look at road and rail links, route extensions and at least one deepwater port. New electrical power and telecommunications infrastructure is also planned. Although Hydro Quebec counts its helicopter bills as a small-ticket item in its overall operations, Séguin observes, “Héli-Boréal is one of a number of suppliers of helicopters to Hydro Quebec. Transporting electricity from one end of the province to the other is an enormous challenge. In my opinion, the helicopter is the most economical and effective way to manage a vast system on virgin and uneven terrain.”

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Helicopters will play a key role in the development of more northern roads. (Photo courtesy of Transports Quebec)
 
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Scenes like this will become more common in the next 25 years as Plan Nord heats up. (Photo courtesy of Strateco Resources)


 

Séguin ticks off other areas where helicopters will play a role in Plan Nord, including environmental control, the supply of all sorts of services and tourism. On the flip side of this shiny coin, however, are a variety of challenges facing helicopter companies. “Lodging is already a problem and all the players are suffering. This is probably the biggest resource problem at present. The shortage of qualified help is another, but the slowdown associated with the global economic crisis gave us a reprieve to train competent personnel,” Séguin says.

Quebec plans to spend $110 million to rebuild northern Quebec’s airport facilities, but will that include more appropriate helicopter facilities? “For helicopters, it is, above all, space for parking that is problematic. It is not always obvious where to find a 30-by-30-foot-space on an airport for a bird, or one with two drills in tow, let alone the fact that the client will be working on his equipment and the mechanics on the helicopters,” Séguin observes.

And then there is the global economy, which floats or sinks resource development projects. “We believe that if the economy continues to grow, the demand will be there,” Séguin predicts. “That said, we are being very prudent, as there is no guarantee with Plan Nord. Northern development relies heavily on the global economy and everything could come to a halt very quickly.”

If markets remain stable and Plan Nord comes to its complete fruition, it will mean a big payoff for Héli-Boréal and other operators working with companies to tap and tame Quebec’s vast natural resources.


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