Payette County's Manmade Quake 

Geologists invoke babies, dynamite and earth-shaking in latest gas exploration effort

Images of fetuses have appeared in the oddest of Idaho locales in 2012. Four months after anti-abortion activists shocked more than a few Statehouse pundits by performing a live ultrasound demonstration, an audience of Idaho farmers and ranchers witnessed larger-than-life images of fetuses July 25 in an equally surreal backdrop: a presentation on natural gas exploration.

"It's like a sonogram," said engineer Brent McNeill, standing behind a slide projector beaming an image of a fully-developed fetus alongside a seismic image of the Earth's crust.

"The picture of this unborn baby uses the same type of seismogram as we use in creating the 3D images of the subsurface," he said. "We record sound waves the same way."

For more than an hour, Payette County landowners heard about babies, sound waves and even explosives, all designed to lead speculators through the tricky thicket of drilling for gas in Idaho--an effort that has led to a number of headlines over the last three years.

Headlines the newest gas speculators want to forget. In fact, the name Bridge Resources, the Canadian-based company that ran into financial trouble at the height of its drilling operations (BW, News, "Bridge Under Troubled Waters," Oct. 5, 2011), wasn't uttered once during the July 25 presentation.

"We're here to talk about seismic operations," said project manager Rod McLeod. "We're not going to talk about ... " After an awkwardly long pause, McLeod never finishing his sentence.

McLeod, of Louisiana-based Cajun Exploration, and McNeill, of Texas-based Gulf Coast Permits, have set up shop in Payette, hoping to get under way with seismic operations by the third week of August. But the first step, they said, was to bring their earth-shaking story to the community via a town hall meeting in the Payette High School auditorium, which doesn't see much activity this time of year.

But dozens of landowners, engineers and at least one lawmaker--Midvale Republican Rep. Judy Boyle, a proponent of gas exploration--showed up on the blisteringly hot evening.

The vibration created is the equivalent of a garbage truck driving by, said McLeod.

But a lot more than garbage trucks will be involved in the two-month operation during which planners will shell out more than $300,000 in payments to landowners for the right to shake their ground. McLeod wouldn't say how many individual deals he had struck with landowners but did confirm to BW that he was in the process of striking a final deal with one last holdout.

"This project will be spread out over 50 square miles, more than 31,000 acres," said McNeill. "But our intention is to leave as small a footprint as possible on your fields."

McNeill then described a process involving something called "geophones," long, black cables attached to 12 metal stakes driven into the ground. When bunched together, the cables resemble a tangle of Christmas tree lights. A separate set of seismic cables, crisscrossing the geophone cables, send the sound waves into the Earth's crust. The cables are fed the seismic waves from a "vibe truck," about the size of a fire engine, which drops 3- by 6-foot metal pads to the ground that shake, or vibroseis, the Earth.

"The vibroseising will last approximately 10 seconds. We'll pause for three seconds and then start shaking again," said McNeill. "We probably won't run these in intervals more than three minutes each."

The sequential sound waves shake the ground and dart through the Earth's crust, each wave bouncing back when it hits a formation. The images are then transmitted to a separate receiver truck, parked on an elevated parcel of land and connected to an antenna similar to a radio tower. The receiver truck collects the signals, creating the sonogram-like images.

"Some waves could go down to limestone and bounce back. A few more sound waves go down to rock formations and bounce back," said David Hawk.

Hawk was introduced to the town hall simply as a geologist. But the former director of energy for the J.R. Simplot Company was also a vice president of several exploration companies and contributed to much of Idaho's rule-making process, crafting the recently enacted regulations governing the oil and gas industry.

"There's a big difference between two-dimensional seismic imaging and the new three-dimensional surveys," said Hawk. "With 2D technology, we used to have success with one out of every nine wells. Using 3D, we could see success with four out of nine wells."

But Hawk was quick to caution against over exuberance.

"Does all of this mean 3D guarantees that we'll find gas? No," said Hawk. "This imaging will not say, 'Drill here.' What it will say is, 'There's an opportunity here.'"

Hawk also insisted that the collected data will be quite secret--unavailable to the media, the public or the government, without a direct order or subpoena.

"Maybe it will be available to purchase at some point in the future," said Hawk.

The vibrations aren't foolproof, and the seismic team also unveiled a Plan B to capture subsurface images, just in case the sonograms don't produce a clear picture.

"My guess is that 85 percent will be vibroseised," said McLeod. "We'll dynamite the rest."

Anyone who may have nodded off during the presentation quickly snapped awake when McLeod and McNeill began describing an explosive scenario where "shot holes," 4 inches in diameter and 40 feet deep, will be drilled and loaded with dynamite.

"You'll feel a thump," said McLeod. "Each charge is approximately 2.2 pounds."

Explosives and earth-shaking equipment resulted in more than a few questions, primarily regarding safety, from the landowners.

"Don't worry, the dynamite can't be set off by a fire or anything else. It can only be set off electronically," said McNeill.

When pressed on a hypothetical scenario in which the dynamite could not even detonate electronically, McLeod conceded that unused dynamite would "probably dissolve into the ground."

"But if we encountered a series of problems with the detonations, we would probably shut down temporarily and re-drill the holes," said McLeod.

Thumping aside, farmers wanted a clearer idea of what kind of vibrations they and their livestock would be feeling from the seismic waves generated through the geophone cables.

"If the Earth moves more than half-an-inch per second, that's usually enough to break up some drywall," said McNeill. "Our cut-off point is one-third of an inch per second."

McNeill said his crews would not be hauling much of their seismic equipment in and out of Payette farmland with any regularity.

"The major equipment will be dropped in by helicopter and then flown out when we're done," said McNeill. "You'll be seeing our helicopter quite a bit instead of us driving all over the place."

McNeill also insisted that the seismic operations would be what he called "a safe distance away" from public and private utilities.

"For example, we'll be a minimum of 300 feet away from dams and water wells, 150 feet away from roads and power lines, and 100 feet away from telephone lines," he said.

Lyla Scheihing had both personal and public concerns. She's not only a Payette County Planning and Zoning commissioner but also negotiated a personal lease for possible gas exploration on her property.

"What if there was any crop damage during the seismic operation?" asked Scheihing.

"I have never, ever been on a job where something damaged wasn't paid for," answered McNeill.

Safety concerns aside, Richard Brown, president of Snake River Oil and Gas, was upbeat. Brown's company has signed scores of leases with Payette County landowners in hopes of drilling for gas once his team completes its 3D imaging.

"We want people to smile about this, not grimace," said Brown. "This is a very risky business for us but we're very excited. We're as passionate about this as anything we've ever done."

McNeill assured landowners that the seismic operation would bring a major financial shot-in-the-arm to Payette County.

"We're guessing that $596,355 will be pumped into your local economy," he said. "Our crew members will probably spend $10,000 a week in your town."

McLeod said approximately 100 jobs would be generated by the eight-week operation but things can't get under way until the Idaho Department of Lands completes the appropriate paperwork.

"We've received some of the application but not the whole thing," said Eric Wilson, IDOL mineral programs manager. "The permits will need to be in place before they begin their shoot."

"You mean before they begin their vibroseising," said Hawk.

"Oh, yes, vibroseising," said a corrected Wilson.

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