The escalating need for oil companies to move into underdeveloped, often remote areas of the world to find new hydrocarbon reserves entails myriad challenges above and beyond the exploration process itself.
Cultures, customs, languages, governments -- indeed, venturing into these locales is like stepping across a transparent border where suddenly everything is different.
Not surprisingly, successful operations in such areas depend heavily upon the cooperation and trust of the indigenous populace -- a situation that is best attained via a demonstrated sense of social responsibility on the part of the oil entity.
Because the need for seismic data dictates that geophysical companies are often the first industry-symbol to arrive en masse on the scene of an exploration program, they shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for establishing good relationships with the community. Ideally, these carefully cultivated affiliations will carry over for many ensuing years of exploration and development activity.
Seismic activity by its nature interacts with communities and the political and social organizations where the work takes place. Therefore, previous knowledge of the area’s economic and social conditions must be considered throughout the project, from planning to conclusion.
“We like to develop seismic work in the pre-job stages by involving the community so they can get some kind of collective benefit out of having the seismic done,” said Norberto Soto, general manager of Latin America at PGS Onshore, which recently received a “Best in Class” distinction for achievements within environmental impact and social responsibility awarded by Norwegian investment company Storebrand Kapitalforvaltning ASA.
“Establishing good relationships and opening communications paths at the start of a job before we get in the field is one of the most important things to do,” Soto said.
Consulting geophysicist Dick Sievers concurs.
“Because seismic goes in before anyone else, you have to do it right,” he said. “Part of the overall program should always be a social investment. The first impression you make in an area where you hope to develop a long-term asset must be a good one.
“There’s an ethical need to do right by the populace because you’ll be developing resources in their area,” Sievers continued. “It’s a good investment for the company to get the people aligned with them right off.”
Steps to make this happen veer off in many directions. For instance, Soto noted that when working in underemployed areas, PGS Onshore strives to ensure the jobs go to the people in the area.
That’s ordinarily just the beginning.
“We’ve found that often there are varied issues around indigenous people,” Soto said.
“These issues range from wanting respect for their culture, customs and land to conflicts with people from the outside moving in on what they see as underutilized land and trying to take advantage.
“They see their area as providing wealth to the nation, but they usually haven’t been direct beneficiaries of that,” Soto noted. “In the past they had no access to operators to share in decisions, or at least to have their voice heard.”
A Spoonful of Sugar?
One such example is Ecuador, where the natives’ hostility toward the industry is constantly stoked by a complicated political situation, including a host of organizations opposed to hydrocarbon exploration.
Problems such as oil spills and broken pipelines from as much as 30 years ago add to the distrust.
Still, the industry is making strides to help ensure a brighter future for the region.
For starters, companies are recognizing the need to make a concerted effort to open paths of communication and establish trust with the various tribal groups. This approach to the community has been highly successful for PGS Onshore in Ecuador as well as in other countries where it has social action programs in place, including Bolivia, Mexico and Bangladesh.
The company acquired a survey in Ecuador’s Oriente Basin as part of a project to redevelop the mature Sacha Field, which was discovered in the late 1960s.
Providing direct social benefits to area communities can prove invaluable to forming cordial relations. A caveat: projects should not focus on what you want them to have, but rather what they want.
“Sometimes in these areas either the governments or oil companies made large donations and built things -- but never asked the people what they wanted,” Soto said, “and the people got things they didn’t want or need.
“We go into an area and do a census, and inventory social needs by interviewing and talking to people,” Soto said. “In one town in Ecuador, we saw a need for a multiple use building to work as an infirmary/school, but the community saw a need that if they had a little sugar mill to squeeze sugar out of sugar cane, they could increase sugar production and get more cash crop, so we helped build the mill.
“With a mill of their own they could boil the sugar down into blocks where it was easy to transport and also a higher value product,” Soto noted.
“We set up the mill so they could burn the crushed sugar cane stalks for fuel, so they didn’t need a natural gas line or electricity to fuel it.”
To effectively implement its corporate social responsibility efforts in Ecuador’s complex, turbulent social and political environment where the indigenous people are fractionated into various tribal groups, PGS Onshore opted to work with stakeholders at all levels through its ASOCOM organization (Community Action, or Asistencia Comunitaria), which comprises 22 professionals specializing in psychology, sociology, social work, medicine, orthodontics, civil engineering, agronomy, forestry and permitting.
Numerous projects have been accomplished via the group’s efforts that could go far to ensure progress in changing the attitudes toward petroleum exploration in this country, which has been long regarded as largely illiterate and impoverished. These long-term solutions include:
- Building schools.
- Constructing new roofs on more than 300 homes to improve living conditions for nearly 2,000 people.
- Installing electricity in homes.
- Reforesting native vegetation along seismic lines and heliports.
- Medical checkups and treatments.
- Donating a tractor to assist 300 families in a farming cooperative.
The program’s impact on a particular seismic survey in Ecuador underscores its value to the company and the client.
Traditional no-permit areas threatened to cause considerable fold loss over the survey’s target area, which would create big problems for the client. Landowners initially refused to provide access permits over the crest of the structure because of unsatisfactory remediation of oil spills on their land.
The ASOCOM group earned the confidence of the local landholders and obtained the permits by demonstrating the environmentally friendly work methods to be used.
The Client’s Role
It is noteworthy that the client plays a major role in the social responsibility arena along with the seismic contractor.
This proved to be the case in densely populated Bangladesh, where the company acquired a 3-D survey over 450 square kilometers for London-based Tullow Oil. The survey crews were comprised of local personnel.
“We work closely with people in remote parts of the countries where we operate,” said Joe Mongan, group geophysical operations manager at Tullow. “This is especially important in Bangladesh, where there may be more than a million people living in an area where we might be physically working.”
This was the case with the PGS survey.
“With such a sizeable population, the issue of corporate social responsibility was vitally important,” Mongan said. “We needed to work hand-in-hand with the local people, inform them of what we were doing, publicly consult with them on what we’re all about, and also provide local employment to the people.
“Some of our activity there was of direct benefit to local authorities, such as donations to school authorities, for example,” Mongan noted. “Where we had to purchase the site for a drilling rig, we let the community have transfer of title so they could build a school once the site was abandoned.”
An unusual aspect of the Bangladesh project was the innumerable farmers who owned the many small paddy fields that were crisscrossed by the seismic survey. Once the project was completed and the equipment removed, PGS compensated the many owners for any assessed damages.
It’s typical in locales like Bangladesh for the schools to be in poor condition, both physically and in the realm of supplies and books.
“We’ve been successful in getting others to help sponsor educational needs, like refurbishing schools,” said Gehrig Schultz, vice president of worldwide business development at PGS Onshore. “We set up ways for oil companies and vendors to donate supplies and help set up libraries.”
Schultz noted also that PGS has donated geophysical libraries to student sections of the SEG in Latin America, an effort that dovetails with the AAPG Publication Pipeline Committee, which sends donated geoscience literature to students in remote areas where books are scarce at their own institutions (see August 2005 EXPLORER).
Corporate social responsibility is not limited to underdeveloped regions in faraway lands.
“Social responsibility has various connotations in various places,” said Mark Russell, geophysicist at Aspect Energy in Denver. “Overseas, it’s environmental as well as doing things to aid the communities you’re working around, bring labor and other things into them.
“In the U.S., it’s more an environmental responsibility, a work ethic, working with the community when you’re there,” Russell said. “You want to minimize the impact your operations have on the environment and on any ongoing operations the landowner has, like cattle ranching. Hopefully, you’ll want to come back and drill producing wells, so you want to work with the landowners in the area.
“It’s self interest, but it’s also social responsibility to be a good neighbor and work well with everyone in the area, so they’ll want you to come back.”
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Mongan added. “Well-established and well-developed relations with local communities helps get the work done.”
Russell suggested companies utilize information campaigns where needed to show the populace what the company will be doing and what the operations will entail. He recommended a public demonstration if necessary.
PGS took this approach recently in Chalmette, La., to demonstrate seismic technology prior to a survey through a residential area.
As the crowd of concerned citizens and government officials looked on, a 47,000-pound vibroseis buggy demonstrated the noise level and vibrations incurred during the data acquisition process. In an unusual twist, two light bulbs and two raw eggs were buried eight inches under the vibrating pads.
Following the demo, the two eggs were retrieved unbroken and the still-intact light bulbs were working, much to the apparent amazement and surprise of the assembled onlookers.