“Seismic acquisition causes droughts, earthquakes and livestock deaths.”
“Seismic acquisition is not regulated.”
“Seismic technology is no longer necessary.”
Messages like these cause some industry geoscientists to worry, others to hide from the limelight, others to jump into action.
Colombian geophysicist Jaime Checa has chosen to act.
Checa, the current president of AAPG Affiliated Society Asociación Colombiana de Geólogos y Geofísicos del Petróleo (ACGGP), is dedicating his presidency, and much of his free time, to combatting misinformation related to seismic acquisition in Colombia.
“I feel tremendous frustration and discomfort every time false claims are so widely advertised in the mass media,” he said. “False claims have caused significant alarm in communities and even among government officials and regulators.”
Myth-Busting: Part of the Job
A self-described “quiet and shy” person, Checa is not naturally drawn to public speaking. But his love of geoscience and passion for helping his country motivated him to start speaking out.
“I just couldn’t stand seeing the misinformation grow. I started by gathering some technical evidence to destroy the numerous myths about seismic and commenced the difficult task of reaching the public,” he said.
Checa developed a presentation called “Seismic Prospecting in Colombia: National Context, Myths and Realities.” He delivers the talk regularly to technical and association meetings, community groups and university campuses.
Francisco Trujillo, AAPG Student Chapter leader at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, said he has attended three of Checa’s lectures, which he finds both compelling and necessary.
“[Checa] has been one of fairest and clearest speakers I’ve seen present the methodology and the impact of seismic exploration our country. He communicates with the general public using language that is thorough but understandable for people with limited expertise in geology,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo and former Student Chapter president Miguel Sánchez invited Checa to the University in April to participate in a forum about the crisis in Colombia’s Casanare department an area in which severe drought and livestock deaths have been attributed a number of factors, including climate change, agriculture and seismic activity.
Sánchez said he appreciates Checa’s use of examples, videos and clear explanations to describe how seismic and other exploratory operations are regulated by Colombia’s environmental authorities.
“These lectures do not guarantee a change of opinion overnight, but they help to create an atmosphere of discussion, and they allow people to see another perspective. The good thing is that Jaime doesn’t try to sell one particular concept; he presents ideas and facts, and people have the opportunity to debate them and decide in the end which they accept and which they don’t,” Sánchez said.
According to Víctor Ramírez, president of AAPG’s Latin America Region, providing the facts and encouraging discussion are essential for geoscientists in Colombia today.
“We, the geologist and geophysicist community, need to act as ‘myth-busters’ of the common misconception that seismic acquisition destroys natural habitats and water resources. We also need to educate authorities and communities about the true effects of seismic activities on the environment,” he said.
“Most people I talk with find the material very helpful and reassuring. Some still remain skeptical, but I know at least I have been able to let the data speak by itself and to help prevent speculation,” Checa added.
His experience working with communities also helps Checa to understand legitimate reasons for opposition to seismic acquisition, including economic factors and occasional substandard professional practices.
“Many regions where oil and gas have been produced for years have not yet seen the benefits of the royalties, which reveals a valid source of discomfort. On the other hand, some sectors have found that blocking the oil operations alleging environmental issues can work as a way to obtain economic benefits of all types,” he said.
Another important factor to recognize is the fact that some companies have not upheld industry standards for operations.
“There could be cases in which service companies or operators have not performed according to the best standards. The negative impact that can be caused in these cases is readily magnified and shown as general occurrence,” he said.
The leading cause for opposition to seismic, Checa argued, continues to be misinformation.
“Several wrong messages have been passed to the public through the mass media, talking about catastrophic environmental impacts, even though no serious scientific evidence has been shown to support these claims. As a result, people feel concerned and confused,” he said.
Checa proposes solutions for these barriers.
“Obviously, misinformation should be tackled with lots of information, using simple language and reaching all types of audiences. Professional associations and universities play an important role as they are sources of independent information and advice,” he said.
Addressing economic concerns can be achieved by separating business negotiations from social outreach efforts and by establishing clear and transparent communication between companies and community representatives.
“The central government and local authorities are key players, providing clear rules and arbitration to solve disputes,” he said.
Checa also described the need for consistent enforcement of high standards and best practices, which should be exercised at all times in compliance with applicable regulations.
“Operators and seismic contractors shall work together to improve the planning of operations, which should be based on high quality environmental assessments,” he said.
Checa said this three-step approach is essential to successful hydrocarbon exploration, which is a fundamental component of Colombia’s economy.
A geophysicist at heart, Checa described seismic data as the “most important source of information when searching for new hydrocarbon resources.” Reducing the level of seismic acquisition negatively affects prospect generation and exploratory drilling and diminishes production and reserves.
“The oil industry is a big supporter of the country’s development, and seismic is what provides the basic information required to start the whole exploration process,” he said.
For Ramirez, seismic acquisition should be presented to the communities as an employment opportunity, executed by companies who are fully aware of their social and environmental responsibilities.
He agrees that geoscientists have an important role in explaining how hydrocarbon exploration benefits communities.
“We [geoscientists] need to be the first educators, beginning with our closest circles, avoiding denial and acknowledging that seismic and any exploratory effort has some effect on the environment, but also emphasizing that modern industry is tightly regulated and follows all the rules to respect the environment,” Ramirez said.
Checa added that geoscientists – “the individuals who provide the data, knowledge and qualified concepts” – should work closely with professional associations to gather information, integrate other disciplines and maintain the industry’s credibility.
Trujillo said Checa has inspired him and other students to contribute to discussions relating to energy development in the world.
“It is our duty to be clear and impartial when communicating information. Our contributions should not only be directed to other geoscientists, but also to members of the general community, who should be able to count on our scientific support when it is time to approve or reject energy projects,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo, Ramirez and Checa agree that for this communication to be effective, geoscientists must step out of the classroom and technical meetings and go to where community members live and work.
“We do not have to wait until somebody comes to ask [about seismic]. We need to be proactive and make a visible effort to explain the importance and benefits of our work as well as the environmental impacts involved,” Checa said.
“It takes enormous effort and time to convey the right information. It’s been harder than I thought, but it’s working,” he said.