Environmentalism has come a long way from its extremist beginnings. Today, it permeates mainstream society, and it's way cool to think green.
There's even green ketchup, for crying out loud.
But operating certain kinds of businesses under the microscope of environmental government agencies, private agencies and ubiquitous environmental watchdogs John and Jane Doe can be a challenging job. This is particularly true for the domestic petroleum industry, which is subject to relentless pressure to be even greener than most segments of society.
"One of the realities, especially on U.S. government-administered land, is geophysical companies and the oil industry as a whole are usually held to higher standards than other users of those public lands," said Health, Safety and Environmental manager Mark Nelson at Dawson Geophysical.
He noted, among other examples, that all-terrain vehicles can be used in these areas by the public but not by geophysical companies.
Nelson serves on the environmental committee of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), an organization with a history of being proactive in dealing with environmental issues and demonstrating environmental stewardship.
A noteworthy example is the environmental standards manual it published in 1993.
"The IAGC was the first segment of the petroleum industry to develop industry-wide guidelines for environmental performance," said IAGC president Charles Darden. "Lots of industry associations and companies were looking at environmental considerations, but there weren't any guidelines available that reflected an entire industry's operations worldwide."
Being first on the scene to address such issues was appropriate, indeed.
"Our industry sets the tone for what is to come later, setting the stage for handling environmental considerations, whether air emissions, permitting, camp site construction, siting in remote locations," said Terry Thoem, vice-president of Health, Safety and Environment at Frontera Resources and IAGC environmental committee chairman.
"When we move out, the next part of the cycle like exploration and drilling goes in," Thoem said, "and the geophysical example that's set is passed on."
Time for a Change
The original IAGC-authored environmental manual, however, is no longer sufficiently in step with the times.
The proliferation of 3-D and 4-D seismic surveys, improvements in geophysical equipment used to carry out projects and new, improved techniques for doing the work spurred the environmental committee members to return to the drawing board early last year.
In addition to the goal of publishing a new manual of environmental standards, the committee is making plans for an IAGC-sponsored environmental conference in Houston next February.
"One of the objectives of the committee is to determine how we can communicate better throughout the industry," Thoem said, "like share best practices, learn about conferences and just put more information in people's hands."
Endangered species and archeological sites are the two major onshore environmental concerns in the United States, according to Nelson. Offshore concerns center on the potential impact of geophysical operations on marine life and on the stages in the life cycle of some of those species.
Thoem emphasized all of these must be addressed properly by the revised standards. He said the committee members will look at such specific issues as marine mammals and the potential for seismic sound waves to impact migration paths -- they're even considering the possibility of lobbying actively for the Marine Mammals Protection Act, which comes up for re-authorization this year.
The seismic industry standards being formulated for the new manual will be applicable worldwide.
"The world gets smaller as we work globally, and there are a lot of hot spots such as rain forests, deserts, the Tundra," Nelson said. "We want to minimize environmental footprints around the world."
The United States long has been at the forefront of the environmental regulatory arena, he continued, while many countries have been lax or, in some instances, have basically ignored ongoing environmental damage.
The impetus to clean up their collective act, however, is getting stronger.
"There's more instances of going to global financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMC, which provide loans and political risk insurance," Thoem said, "and they're adopting globally applicable standards."
But even in countries with no environmental guidelines in place, Thoem noted it's essential for the seismic contractors to work in accordance with the IAGC standards.
"As countries develop, it's important we do things right from the start," he said, "and help others with good practices and procedures by setting a good example."
In fact, the new manual is being drafted with the seismic crew party chief in mind versus, say, the company VP of operations.
"We want to educate the guy in the field who does the work to understand the type environment he's going into," Nelson said, "and the best environmental practices he needs to use."
Companies everywhere have an array of issues at stake when it comes to taking care of the environment. And with instant communication the norm today, poorly performing companies can be spotlighted worldwide on the Internet with potentially disastrous financial implications.
"Loss of market share for a company," Thoem noted, "gets attention at the board level quickly."
The IAGC manual will define the minimum standards for the seismic industry to follow. Darden cautioned, however, these must be supplemented and enhanced by the companies.
"We know individual companies will encounter local situations that require a unique set of operational practices and procedures," he said. "That's why it's important for all the companies to develop an even more comprehensive environmental management plan that goes beyond the IAGC standards.
"The manual goes a long way, but it doesn't cover all the circumstances."
Within the seismic industry, there is such a variety of players and unique ways that companies must operate in different locales worldwide that a publication outlining operational standards could easily become unwieldy in content.
Nelson remarked they initially intended to include a reference section -- but after accumulating more than 530 references with no end in sight, they halted that effort.
"We originally talked about linking the document to all those Web sites, but we realized we had overwhelmed ourselves and our potential readers," he said. He added they are debating how best to use this information.
In addition to the goal to make the manual user-friendly and readable, committee members are taking care to refrain from making the standards overly detailed.
"One of the things an industry association must recognize when establishing standards is that government entities often lift wording or even sections and incorporate them in permitting requirements and regulations," Darden said. "So we can't be too limiting with procedures that require flexibility to address local or unique circumstances."
The manual will be available early next year and will be in CD format, and Nelson said it might be downloadable off the Internet. Although no official purchase price has been set, it's not likely potential buyers will have reason to complain.
"The price will cover the production cost, for the most part," Nelson said.