Passive seismic and active oil price trends are defining the day for geologists and explorationists in the Rocky Mountain region -- and increased use of 3-D seismic imaging probably is in the offing for tomorrow.
That was part of the message told at the recent annual 3-D Seismic Symposium in Denver, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists and the Denver Geophysical Society.
Increased use of 3-D seismic was easy to see, according to the experts.
"There's been much less use of 3-D in the Rocky Mountains while it's more standard in Texas," said Murray Roth, president of Denver-based Transform Software and Services Inc. "This is a real shortage … (and) these things happen in a cycle."
Roth was one of several speakers at the symposium, which was sold out this year with 580 attendees. It also had 14 exhibitors, the most in its 11-year history, said symposium co-founder H. Randy Ray.
"This reflects the high prices in the industry," Ray said. "The Rockies is still open for new development. It's revealing that trend."
He pointed out that 3-D has become a mature technology.
"What's different now is that technology provides better images," he said. "Now you can record much better information in places like thrust belts."
Bill Pearson, the other co-founder and head of Pearson Technologies of Denver, also said he expects the industry to see more utilization of 3-D.
"The Rockies have a lot more areas that need to be shot," he commented. "Texas and Oklahoma have already been pretty well shot with 3-D.
"Oil will continue to go up to maybe even $80 a barrel," he said. "Gas will stay up in price and increase slightly until liquefied natural gas starts coming in in another two to three years. That will set the cap on natural gas."
Other industry experts noted that increasing oil prices have resulted in more investment in the energy business.
"In general, I'm seeing a willingness, but not a flood, to spend money. That wasn't there three to four years ago," said Peter Duncan, a speaker at the symposium and president and CEO of MicroSeismic Inc. in Houston.
"People are willing to take a chance on new technology now, particularly in the Middle East," he said.
In the last 18 months Duncan said he has seen the industry bring old technology to bear on current problems.
He noted that passive seismic -- listening without active surface sources (see "Geophysical Corner," May EXPLORER ) -- has lagged behind the use of more conventional 2-D and 3-D seismic techniques. However, the move to explore in more difficult terrain has led to renewed interest in passive seismic.
"It uses sources of opportunity, perhaps man-made. We use only receivers," he said.
The cost advantage for this application can be great and environmentally friendly -- "Our footprint is very small," he said.
At one property in the Rocky Mountains, Duncan said his company has 21 independent recorders collecting data on over 400 square miles of land every two weeks.
"We're getting 10 to 20 events a day recorded by this system, and of those one or two a day are useful," he said.
He said the company's use of passive seismic applications over the last year has been encouraging but came with some disappointments.
"More geophones rather than less are recommended both for noise reduction and redundancy," he said. "Placing the phones below the weathered layer appears generally useful for reduction of surface noise."
Meanwhile, another speaker, Stuart Wright, geophysics manager of Denver-based Dawson Geophysical Co., updated the audience on seismic data acqusition on federal lands -- a subject of much interest in the Rocky Mountain region.
It still takes at least four to five months to apply for and acquire a permit to drill on a 20-square mile federal land parcel, he said.
Wildlife factors (such as raptor nesting) limit the seismic activity window in the Rockies to the period from early August through mid-November.
He noted some improvement in wildlife restrictions with concessions to drilling companies to drill year-round in relation to wildlife issues.
"It has less impact on the animals if it is spread out year-round rather than conducted in a short intense period," he said.
He advised attendees not to rush through the permitting process, thereby setting dangerous precedents with the BLM for acquiring permits.
"We have a tendency to agree to things that are unreasonable and throw money at it," he said.
Generally, archaeological and wildlife issues are the principal factors that slow down or halt the permit process, he said.
"We practice archaeological avoidance," he said. "We mark areas off and avoid them."
Sometimes the BLM or environmentalists want oil companies to do a Class III inventory on private land parcels even if they are small but included in a federal land permit. But some of these BLM requests have no legal basis, he said.
He advised the audience to get directives like this from the BLM in writing so they can be challenged at a higher level.