'Traffic' Jams Seismic Permits

Exploration Window Narrows

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.

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 Banks.

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.

Image Caption

A 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

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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.

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 Banks.

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 to mid-November.

"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 estimate.

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. Clickhere to view PDF charts uwbeywfzbfxa

  • 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 Preservation Office.

    "You may have to submit a report to the Indian tribes in the area," he said, which could delay the process an additional 30 days.

  • 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 said.

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, he said.

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