The 3 fieldwork strategies every environmental consultant should know

Daniel Walsh Consulting • Environment • 5 minute read

As I lay in my cot listening to the soothing sound of the rain (and considering the not-so-soothing fact that it isn’t supposed to rain during the dry season in Western Australia) a logistical disaster was unfolding: a thick layer of bentonite clay, just below the ground surface, was becoming waterlogged.

By morning, road conditions were so bad that I couldn’t drive from my camp to the work site. The next day the road was still impassible, and the need for more supplies forced me to abandon my rental vehicle and walk to the main road on high ground.

This incident, which cost me an entire week of fieldwork, taught me the importance of consulting with local experts before heading into the field - one of several strategies for conducting efficient fieldwork that I want to share in this post.

Fieldwork Foundations

Ask most environmental consultants working with the oil and gas industry what their favourite part of the job is, and its likely they’ll say something like this: “the people are great, but it’s the fieldwork that got me into the profession in the first place”.

That’s a good thing, given the importance of fieldwork to the industry: it’s really the only reliable way to find out what’s happening on the ground. Accurate knowledge of a work site is critical during all stages of oil and gas development, including planning, permitting, production, and cleanup. Although it provides many benefits, fieldwork isn’t cheap – companies spend significant amounts of money mobilizing technical consultants, survey crews, and other experts.

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As a result, one of the most valuable skills you can develop as a professional consultant is the ability to complete fieldwork effectively and efficiently. There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to great fieldwork, but there are a few strategies that will help if you’re just getting started, or if you need to tighten up your skills.

In this post, I’ve assembled a list of some of the most common efficiency-sapping problems encountered during fieldwork as well as essential strategies for preventing them.

Common problem Prevention strategy
Not enough time to visit all field localities Prioritize!

In an ideal world, there would be time and money to visit all field localities and collect detailed data. In the real world, fieldwork often takes longer than expected, which can cause projects to fall behind schedule.

If you separate the required fieldwork into prioritized tasks in advance, you’ll be in a better position to make a decision when pressed for time. In the early stages of a project, you may determine that new tasks need to be added to the list, or that the relative priorities of existing tasks need to be adjusted.

To take advantage of this challenge, prioritize fieldwork that will clarify the scope of the field campaign.

Common problem Prevention strategy
Conditions more difficult than expected Know your resources

This problem is more common in remote, undeveloped areas, but can occur anywhere. Underestimating the difficulty of field conditions can result in cost overruns, missed deadlines, and unnecessary safety hazards.

Assess conditions in advance using remote sensing data (not just a site plan or map provided by the client). There is typically a wealth of data available for a specific field location (think satellite images, topographic maps, and surficial geology maps). It’s amazing how often people head into the field without doing their homework first!

It is important to keep in mind, however, that overreliance on air-photos and similar data products can cause trouble. For example, photographs taken in the fall may show dry ground, but the same area may be flooded and impassible in summer. Your best bet is to consult with other professionals who have worked in the area.

Common problem Prevention strategy
Poor organization of field data Get smart with your tools

This is a big one, and, in my experience, can be a major drag on fieldwork efficiency. Nothing is more frustrating than returning to the office and being unable to interpret your own cryptic notes, or realizing that you forgot to collect a critical piece of data!

This is a skill that comes with experience and is difficult to teach. These basic tips will be most useful to those just starting out:

Rather than keeping notes in a messy field notebook, embrace the organizational power of modern technology. If possible, collect data using standardized digital forms. Integrated geolocation is a powerful tool – and even small outfits can afford a tablet with an integrated GPS unit and camera. Another strategy I find effective is to go through field notes at the end of each day while your memory of a site visit is fresh. This will allow you to catch any mistakes and clarify confusing notes.

Don't forget your people!

When planning fieldwork, don’t forget to take advantage of your most valuable resource: your colleagues, your client, and even people local to the area. They are likely to have advice specific to your project type, operating area, and client.

If I had consulted with locals in Western Australia, for example, I would have learned that it had been a particularly wet dry season, and would have come up with a plan for coping with the mud.

If you’re just starting out, I hope you’ll find this advice useful, and if you’re a seasoned professional, hopefully it provides some strategic reminders for you and your team to to keep delivering your best field work.

See you out there!

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