For those who don’t have kids, the above is a line from the movie Shrek. It also epitomizes the reality of field seismic contracting services over the past few years. Sure, sometimes we have to be dragged into the future, kicking and screaming, as we are by nature, conservative or afraid of the unknown. Generally speaking however,
change is good, if not inevitable and your friendly neighborhood geophysical contracting company has proved up to the challenge.
At the time of writing this we are in the middle of what is supposed to be our busiest season, and with the price of Oil and Gas nearing all time highs, you’d think that all businesses associated with the industry would be going gangbusters. In the world of field seismic contracting, that is far from the truth.
We have, in fact been in steady freefall for quite some time, and, we have seen many companies disappear, as the gap has narrowed, between prices charged for our services and the upward spiral of operational costs. The good news is that those companies that a re still around have had to get better at what they do, become more technically effective, efficient and flexible. They have achieved this by pioneering the use of evolving technologies. Examples include, mulchers, GPS & Inertial survey systems (INS), LIDAR, mini-vibes, minidrills, navigation systems and multi-component data recording systems.
So what are the challenges that we face?
Probably the biggest challenge is that of getting the job done and, at the same time, reducing our impact on the environment. This has meant that contractors have had to invest huge sums of money to develop technologies, equipment and vehicles that offer solutions that make continued seismic exploration possible. At a high level, all of us are, and will continue to be, faced with substantial changes over the next few years, to satisfy the protocols established in the Kyoto Accord. However, at ground level, reducing our environmental footprint has been the single-most challenge to our continued ability to shoot new seismic programs.
Over the past twenty years, we have seen the width of seismic lines shrink from 8 meters down to, in some cases zero. Remarkable as that sounds, you know we have actually been able to achieve it, and with no appreciable decrease in accuracy or program integrity. Legally and where necessary, we are still permitted, in some cases, to cut lines up to 5.5 meters wide, but, there is increasing pressure from regulators and the environmental lobby to limit line widths to the practical minimum.
This doesn’t come without challenges, however, as I think its fair to state that, as lines become narrower, there is also a proportional increase in the cost of exploration programs that has led to the Client getting a smaller seismic ‘bang’ for his investment ‘buck’.
Picture the difference between; the traditional 8 meter wide, straight, seismic line, constructed to accommodate, wheeled survey pick-ups, full-size drills and recording vehicles compared to that of today’s typical sub 3 meter wide, meandering avoidance line, that can only be cut by small mulchers or chain-saw crews, and suitable only for ATV’s, tracked micro drills and portable or semi-portable recording equipment & vehicles.
With the former, crews would mobilize from camps or motels, fully equipped with e.g. survey supplies, cable, geophones, explosives, water & explosives for drills, fuel etc, sufficient for the day’s work, returning at night. They would have good communication in the form of truck radios and have an on-site wheeled, ambulance to react quickly to a medical emergency.
More often than not, with the latter, helicopter support is necessary to continuously ferry personnel, equipment & supplies and to offer ‘medivac’ and communication capability to crew personnel on the ground.
Get the picture? The use of helicopters is now an accepted, vital part of the job, they are indispensable yet very expensive. Let us estimate $1,000 per hour or more, and, is one helicopter sufficient? What if there’s a breakdown; a medical emergency; loss of communication or weather becomes a factor? Nobody works then.
Even with all of the new specialized vehicles and equipment, crews often still need trucks to get close to isolated program areas, so the additional expense is over the top of traditional expense.
There is a plus side in the new way, as previously stated, the reduction of our environmental footprint. Within just a few growing seasons, narrow mulched & hand-cut seismic lines recover and re-vegetate to a condition that makes them almost impossible to find.
There are additional benefits to the environment as the burning of debris is minimized; there is a reduction of air pollution and the potential for fire. Merchantable trees are left intact, leading to a cost saving in damages paid by industry to the crown and the owners of the timber harvesting rights (FMA’s).
You should also be aware of “SARA” (Species At Risk Act), – recently enacted by the federal government, – to recognize that the way we work in the field has irreversibly changed. Knowledge of this legislation and similar provincial legislation, when planning any industrial activity, whereby a species, its habitat or potential habitat is impacted, will confirm that we are now expected to work under totally new sets of rules & guidelines.
Other challenges to the field seismic contractor include the decreasing number of Clients that we can find to go to work for. Mergers and takeovers have led to consolidations in the seismic databases of Clients, and inherently, with the passage of time, unexplored areas diminish. Clients also look to old data or trade data, preferring to pay for re-processing to enhance their product. They will now enter partnerships to share, or minimize costs, or use ‘Spec’ companies to manage and shoot larger seismic programs, usually pre-sold to several interested parties, each of whom in the past would have operated alone, further reducing the amount of activity and duplication of the exploration effort.
There are countless other challenges that have emerged to make one wonder, how the owners of seismic contracting companies keep going. Examples include finding, training and keeping competent personnel, and paying them adequately, so that they don’t leave for greener pastures with a competitor or to a different industry. This is a big problem when you can only offer permanency for the duration of perhaps a very short seismic season or maybe even just for the current program that you are on.
Planning has become a somewhat irrelevant word, as by the time a bid is won, the following day there is the expectation of the contractor to mobilize people and equipment and begin work. Oh yes, don’t expect to get paid in a hurry for your cash expenditures, waiting 100 days or more is not uncommon. This area of planning is where Oil and Gas companies have an opportunity to examine their budget cycles and efficiencies to allow contractors to prepare more adequately. Widening the window, within which we work, would enable us to take advantage of longer daylight hours by starting some projects,- particularly surveying, line preparation and drilling,- earlier in the fall season, before the extremes of heavy, winter snowfalls set in. As it stands right now, this is a period when AFE monies for the year have been exhausted.
I won’t get into all the other challenges, such as, First Nation’s issues; increased landowner conditions & permit costs; more stringent regulations, laws & by-laws from federal, provincial, municipal governments. I won’t detail the countless fish & wildlife (F&W) issues, caribou, sheep & ungulate zones; forestry guidelines; watercourse issues under the purview of the department of fisheries & oceans (DFO); grazing leases; parks and nature reserves; trapper issues and much, much more.
I think you can see the importance of strong Association representation in all of these matters and look to all involved in the industry to keep open the lines of communication to improve the lot of the challenged field seismic contracting companies in these ever-changing times.
The CAGC website www.cagc.ca is an excellent venue to, at least, become informed of issues and to access more information on the capabilities of field seismic companies and the and techniques they employ.