courtesy of WesternGeco
You thought rough terrain would be the hard part
of the job? The geophysical industry is facing a host of environmental
and safety issues that make hostile environments seem tame -- and
could significantly impact their operations.
The geophysical industry is facing a host
of environmental and safety issues that could significantly impact
the bottom line of seismic operations -- and in some cases hamper
access to certain regions of the world.
Marine mammals, public lands and explosives handling
are among the most important and potentially contentious issues
geophysical contractors face -- and the industry is taking a more
proactive role in working to find balanced solutions to these problems.
And because seismic activity is often the first wave
of exploration efforts, these issues are potential threats to the
entire upstream oil and gas industry, according to Chip Gill, president
of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.
The impact of geophysical noise on marine mammals,
for example, is increasingly having a big input on operations.
"We've had a marine mammals protection act in the
United States for sometime," Gill said, "and while that has not
yet resulted in regulations in the Gulf of Mexico, it has impacted
how we conduct seismic operations in other areas of the country
like offshore California and Alaska."
While more countries are becoming "proactive" in
the area of marine mammal protection, the United Kingdom has been
an active jurisdiction for some time. Several years ago regulations
were instituted governing the North Sea -- the first set of rules
that aggressively regulated the geophysical industry in that area.
(The UK currently is reviewing and considering changes
to those regulations.)
"Since then, Australia has undertaken a review of
this whole issue and completed a regulatory process last year that
instituted rules governing our operations," Gill said. "Brazil is
currently looking at some regulatory action and it appears that
country will be very aggressive in restricting our operations. Plus,
for the first time the United States is taking a look at marine
mammal safety in the Gulf of Mexico."
Brazil, now with its offshore basins open to international
oil companies, has had a huge increase in seismic activity -- is
struggling with its regulatory regime, he said. Brazilian officials
spoke at a recent environmental conference in Houston and signaled
the country's intent to conduct a rule-making process that could
make Brazil one of the most aggressive regulatory regimes in the
world at affecting seismic operations, according to Gill.
In fact, for the first time since 1984 the Minerals
Management Service is rewriting its rules governing the geophysical
"We don't know what the final outcome will look like,
but we need to be prepared to follow that process and interact with
the MMS any way we can," Gill said. "That's true for other countries
like Brazil as well."
Seeking Sound Science
Such regulatory efforts prompted the IAGC to approach
the issue proactively as a potential threat to the geophysical business.
"Regulation in the worse case can cause outright
restrictions or exclusions, which is a threat to our business,"
Also, he added, regulations can affect the cost side
"If we are required to do certain things that cost
more money, who pays that additional cost?" he asked. "Do those
extra costs make it prohibitive to conduct acquire data? Or, if
it's a cost we can't bear, can we pass it on to the client?"
Last year the IAGC created a top-level task force
made up of senior management personnel from larger marine data acquisition
companies to address the impact of air-gun arrays on marine mammals.
Also, Veritas DGC loaned an expert in offshore marine seismic data
acquisition to the IAGC to work on the issue.
The task force's mission is to develop and implement
a proactive global strategy to ensure that any government action
on this issue is based on sound science, and that it fairly balances
certain and necessary benefits to marine mammal populations against
the cost of the regulations themselves.
Most regulatory structures call for either visual
or passive acoustic monitoring for the presence of animals and then
some mitigation measures. These can run the gamut from soft start-ups
to drive the animals away from the area to outright shutdowns.
"The key issue here is sound science -- we need to
make sure regulations are actually necessary," Gill said.
"At the same time, we are cognizant of the concerns
that our acoustic emissions have an impact on marine mammals," he
added. "We are concerned as well. If our activities are harming
marine mammals we want to know what those affects are so we can
take reasonable measures to minimize or eliminate them."
The task force also has been working to develop geophysical
industry protection standards for seismic acquisition activities
in relation to marine mammals.
"Currently there is a good deal of misinformation
about our effects on marine mammals," he said. "One of the things
we want to do is put together a fact sheet that anyone can use to
guide them on this issue."
Some environmental groups have attempted with various
levels of vigor to shut down seismic operations, he observed. Greenpeace,
for example, attempted to shut down an acquisition crew off Sakhalin
Island last summer, and the Natural Resource Defense Council issued
a paper ("Sounding the Depths") calling for dramatic measures that
would severely threaten the seismic industry.
To address marine mammal regulations, IAGC is networking
with the rest of the E&P community, such as the OGP (International
Association of Oil and Gas Producers).
"We share the same concerns in terms of access and
the freedom to conduct our business," he said, "so organizing with
these other groups is an important step."
Another issue that threatens to severely hamper the
geophysical industry is access to public lands in the United States,
particularly in the Rocky Mountain states. The Bureau of Land Management
has become increasingly more restrictive in recent years as a result
of added pressure from environmental groups, according to Marty
Hall, U.S. marketing and sales manager for PGS Onshore and chairman
of the IAGC Western U.S./Alaska Regional Committee.
"There have been regulations and guidelines in place
for seismic operations along with the rest of oil and gas activities
and we've been following those regulations for years," Hall said.
"However, recently the interpretation of the regulations has gotten
tougher and tougher -- today it's to the point that seismic operations
on public lands in the Rockies are restricted to just several months
a year, generally between July and November 15.
"Between endangered species, nesting, grazing issues
and other concerns like these increasingly restrictive regulations,
we are very limited as to when we can operate."
Gill believes there's a constituency that doesn't
want any activity on public lands at all and they are using the
existing legal framework -- like the Endangered Species, Antiquities
and National Environmental Policy acts "to throw up roadblocks in
front of us every step of the way."
The seismic industry is targeted because it typically
is the first wave of exploration activity, Hall said.
"Today, almost every time the BLM approves a seismic
project, environmental groups appeal the decision and attempt to
get a stay," he said. "Consequently the BLM is much more sensitive
and is attempting to dot every I and cross every T before they approve
The seismic industry is intervening in these appeals
cases to ensure both perspectives are presented. Also, industry
officials are attending BLM meetings and visiting district and state
BLM directors and Department of the Interior officials to explain
how seismic crews operate -- and the minimal environmental impact
of these crews.
"Plus, we have to make sure people understand the
impact if we are not able to conduct our business," Hall said. "Finding
and producing additional domestic energy supplies is important not
just to the petroleum industry, but also to our national security."
Hall's committee has established a subcommittee dealing
with public lands access issues. Members of the subcommittee are
taking the lead in meeting with government officials, going to meetings
and looking for other ways to get involved.
Committee members are intervening in specific cases
as well. For example, in a recent case in Wyoming where environmental
groups were using erroneous information in an appeal of a BLM decision,
IAGC members intervened and the appeal was denied. The project went
"It is definitely impacting the seismic business
in the Rockies," Hall said about the legal challenges. "As an industry
we have to do all that we can to educate the public, government
officials and policy makers about the long-term impact of these
Another issue impacting the geophysical industry
today deals with safety. In the last two years the industry had
four fatalities in four separate incidents as a result of unplanned
premature detonation of explosives.
Investigations revealed that mishandling the explosives
was a primary area of concern, although one of the accidents was
caused by static electricity .
In that case, the investigators found there was some
concerns about the detonator meeting the manufacturer's specifications
for static resistance, said Jeff Howell, quality health safety and
environment manager for WesternGeco's Houston facilities and chairman
of IAGC's work group on minimum threshold for safety against static,
radio frequency and stray currents.
"We've been using detonators for years in this industry
and we are now finding out that there are varying levels of parameters,
specifications and testing of detonators against some of these hazards,"
The IAGC Health, Safety and Environment Committee
already was planning to revise its safety manual this year, and
a work group has been established to thoroughly examine the explosives
section, according to Howell.
Another work group will look at developing training
programs for explosives handling, while a third group will develop
safety guidelines for static detonators.
"Our hope is that through these efforts we can standardize
the quality of detonators, training methods and safe handling practices,"
he said. "We are taking a two-way approach, addressing best practices
on the industry's part and ensuring we receive the safest product
available from the manufacturers.
"We are trying to focus on lessons learned from these
incidents to prevent these tragedies in the future," Howell continued.
"If we don't learn anything from these accidents then as an industry
we are remiss.
"Of course, a manual can't cover everything, but
IAGC's efforts to provide minimum safety procedures will help ensure
safety. In many places around the world there are not a lot of safety
regulations, so it is incumbent on the industry to set well-defined
safety guidelines and best practices."