As a self-described "oil industry
refugee," Tom Temples says he has been trying to bring petroleum
technology into the environmental business since 1991.
He has met with a surprising amount of resistance
— and some success.
Horizontal drilling, advanced geophysical methods,
high-resolution seismic, ground-penetrating radar all represent
potential tools that are "very applicable to the environmental business,"
Temples said technologies and computer programs for
reservoir modeling hold promise for environmental study as well.
Working with the Department of Energy through the
1990s and the University of South Carolina Center for Water Research
and Policy since 1999, Temples has had opportunities to apply techniques
like seismic stratigraphy to help explain problems affecting cleanup
efforts at certain waste sites.
In two examples covered in a poster session to be
presented in May during the AAPG Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City,
high-resolution seismic data were collected initially to see if
contaminants could be detected directly.
technology proved to be a valuable tool in another way — understanding
the subsurface geology of the sites and providing explanations for
unexpected problems and pointing the way to better solutions, Temples
- At one location, a Savannah River Site
seepage basin, contaminants were migrating through the aquifer
system to a lower level than could be explained by traditional
characterization methods. Stratigraphic data allowed scientists
to identify a channel allowing the contaminants into the lower
- At the Charleston Naval Weapons site, an
underground solvent plume was spreading in the "wrong" direction,
according to predictions. Standard cross-section interpretation
did not show a channel that was apparent from seismic data, Temples
"I doubt it would have been picked up if we had not
shot the seismic data," he said, adding that identifying the channel
allowed remediation efforts to be better focused.
The result: A reactor barrier wall — an underground
structure filled with crushed iron to break up the chlorinated solvent
— could be placed more effectively.
The environmental business remains resistant to new
technology, Temples said, citing several possible reasons — including,
of course, "because we've never done it that way."
Customary environmental waste-site characterizations
are made from drilling core holes in a grid pattern over the site.
"Mother Nature is not always cooperative," Temples
said, citing how drill holes may not detect channels that allow
contaminant migration and, in some cases, actually may exacerbate
the problem by opening a secondary pathway for contaminants.
Cutting down the number of holes drilled, he added,
is an immediate advantage of newer technology.
Cost is a factor as well.
In explaining, Temples said that moving into environmental
geology from the oil industry was "eye opening" — in petroleum
exploration, resources seemed virtually "unlimited" if an undertaking
looked profitable, but in environmental geology, the end result
usually will cost money.
Perhaps a lot of money, he added, depending on what
the geoscientist finds at a particular site.
"Instead of generating a revenue stream, I'm going
to cost someone some money," Temples said.
But he quickly adds that deploying advanced technology
on the front end can have cost benefits.
"It's the old 'pay me now or pay me later' — go
in cheap and have to spend a lot of money to redesign a system,"
"Doing it right, up front, also increases out credibility
with the regulatory agencies," he said. "We don't want to have to
go back and say, 'we missed this and we missed that.'"
On the other hand, some regulatory agencies are not
comfortable with new, unfamiliar technology.
Overworked and underpaid staffers like to "cookbook"
remediation efforts, Temples said. "Trying a new technique puts
an extra burden on them."
The University of South Carolina has a 120-channel
seismic system and several companies specialize in environmental
geophysics, Temples said, and he and his colleagues use commercially
available software, including PC-based and UNIX systems, in their
For Temples and other oil patch refugees, environmental
sites may provide targets for their expertise for some time to come.
Waste sites vary from traditional landfills to seepage
basins to simple burial pits.
From the 1950s into the '70s, the common way to dispose
of industrial waste was to "go out and bury it — out of sight,
out of mind," Temples said.
"Now they're all leaking."