Industry Must Face Tough Issues

At Risk: The Bottom Line

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 industry.

"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."

Image Caption

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.
Photos courtesy of WesternGeco

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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 industry.

"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," Gill said.

Also, he added, regulations can affect the cost side of operations.

"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."

Legal Delays

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 any project."

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 forward.

"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 restrictions."

An Explosive Subject

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," Howell said.

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."

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