seismic crew member at work in Utah near Arches National Park --
a project that was halted in late February after questions that
the operation may harm the environment.
Photo courtesy of WesternGeco
Future regulations, an increasingly important
and time-intensive step in seismic exploration -- particularly on
federal lands -- could make Rocky Mountain projects a seasonal business,
says a geophysical advisor with WesternGeco in Denver.
Stuart Wright told the Rocky Mountain Association
of Geologists at its annual 3-D seismic symposium to plan well in
advance when trying to obtain a federal permit for a seismic survey.
Wright, one of several speakers at the RMAG's annual
symposium in Denver, made his remarks just days before a headline-grabbing
action halted a seismic operation -- involving his company -- just
outside of Arches National Park in Utah.
In late February, an Interior Department appeals
officer halted oil exploration near Arches, saying the project could
cause irreparable harm to the area.
The action came after environmentalists blamed the
Bush administration for inadequate environmental studies.
American West is attractive to many people, for many reasons --
and its popularity and value to many groups are two reasons why
federal permits allowing exploration are an increasingly time-intensive
effort. Above, a scene from Arches National Park.
Photo courtesy of John Balsley
The seismic operation was going on a few miles from
the northern border of Arches, outside the area being proposed as
a wilderness area. Arches is a 76,518-acre preserve famed for its
2,000 arches and other geologic marvels carved by wind and water
from sheer red sandstone cliffs.
Officials for the Bureau of Land Management officials,
however, said they had taken the concerns of those who question
the project into account before activity began. The BLM now plans
to provide the Interior's Board of Land Appeals with additional
information justifying the project, said Utah BLM spokesman Don
The WesternGeco project involves several seismic
trucks driving across the desert. Among the objections raised were
concerns that the traffic could destroy a thin crust of bacteria
that forms over the desert soil and prevents erosion and weed growth.
It would take up to 300 years for that crust to regenerate,
the USGS said.
Because of the stoppage, WesternGeco was facing the
prospect of starting the project from scratch in the late summer.
The area may be a nesting habitat for the threatened
Mexican Spotted Owl.
'Tis the Season
Wright's remarks, in retrospect, seemed to anticipate
the delay at Arches, as he reminded the RMAG symposium crowd that
a small window for seismic activity remains open between August
"There is much time involved in the permitting process,"
he said. "You need to know how it can affect your cycle time rendering
it profitable or unprofitable."
Vehicle traffic from the seismic shooting process
is one of the biggest factors in the argument against granting permits
on federal lands, he said.
If the prospective area happens to fall within a
national park, national monument, wilderness area, wilderness study
area or other less common areas of special consideration, projects
are automatically subject to regulatory review, Wright said.
Land controlled by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service or
state administered property, may be subject to other factors that
may influence exploration activity, he added.
He told the organization that they should expect
it to take 90 to 120 days to obtain a federal permit for seismic
on BLM land and an additional 15-40 days for actual acquisition
of data from a 20-square-mile survey.
In Wyoming alone, 31 million acres -- half the land
in the state -- is federally controlled.
In all, it takes about 137 days -- four to five months
-- to obtain federal permits, he said. And that is an optimistic
Then there is a brief window in August and September
when companies are allowed to shoot seismic.
"We're heading toward a seasonal period where we
can only shoot when the tundra is not frozen," he said. "The only
activity is in the late summer and early fall when crews will work."
And Don't Forget ...
Other timing factors also come into play, he noted.
The Bureau of Land Management will not approve seismic surveys
unless there is no activity on the winter range. Although it
is dependent on the weather, these restrictions could preclude
seismic activities from mid-November to late April.
Even if it's not a particularly harsh winter, it may be difficult
to obtain a permit, Wright said.
The window of opportunity gets even smaller because of raptor
nesting like those of the red tail hawk, which could halt seismic
operations from February through July.
The time restriction imposed for sage grouse strutting is
the same as for raptor nesting, he said, but the avoidance distances
are usually much greater.
Elf calving restrictions are imposed from May 1 to June 30.
Hunting season may also cut into the window of time -- and,
generally, hunting seasons are most common in the autumn.
"To date, they haven't restricted a lot of seismic
because of that," Wright said, "but it's headed our way. It's already
happening in California."
Wright remarked that in California crews cannot shoot
seismic when ducks are nesting and they can't shoot when hunters
are out hunting the ducks, either.
"The weather is a big potential problem because of
the archaeological requirement," he said. If there is snow cover,
archaeological elements may not be obvious.
"That's not an uncommon thing in the West," he added.
The Waiting Game
He said the four to five months of time required
to obtain federal permits is optimistic at best and can slow down
at various stages.
He described the procedure to acquire a federal permit
to shoot 3-D on a 20-square-mile property on lands administered
by the BLM. Click
here to view PDF charts
First, there is a seven-day process to file a notice of intent
to obtain federal permission to proceed with surveying. The
survey itself can take about 24 days, he said.
Next, there is a 17-day biological survey, which can overlap
the earlier survey. If required, biologists will examine the
area for plant and animal species. That could include all organisms
that are considered threatened or endangered.
The archaeology survey, one of the major steps in the process,
can take from five to seven weeks.
Archaeologists must analyze all vehicle travel paths and delineate
site avoidance routes.
Next, there is usually a 30-day review by the state's Historic
"You may have to submit a report to the Indian tribes in the
area," he said, which could delay the process an additional
Following that is a 30-day public comment period. Special interest
groups may submit comments on the last day of the public comment
period to draw out the procedure, he said.
Noting the WesternGeco seismic shoot near Arches, Wright talked
about how groups were trying to stop it from proceeding.
"Seismic isn't the problem," he said, "but (some) know it's
the first step to drilling."
Finally, it takes another 20 days for data acquisition, he
When towns, railroads, interstate highways, topographic
barriers and private landowners are considered, the process for
acquiring seismic data on federal lands can become even more complicated,