Company attempting to secure exploration rights near Nine Mile
The debate regarding gas and oil exploration frequently becomes heated, with environmentalists on one side and development proponents on the other.
Environmentalists tend to use public relations tools to paint the gas and oil companies as villains.
"Over the years, we probably haven't been as good as we should have at getting our view point across," noted Duane Zavadil, Bill Barret Corporation director and manager of environment and safety, during an interview last week. "Most of us are geologists and we deal with the science of the exploration. I find that a lot of the debate on the subject falls under a more emotional aspect than it does a scientific one."
Zavadil's company is attempting to secure the right to explore for deep deposits of gas in Nine Mile Canyon area.
The first stage of the process will involve completing a seismic survey to locate underground formations that may contain gas.
"One of the things that has happened around here is that most of the good shallow gas deposits have already been developed or are under development," indicated Zavadil. "We are looking for deeper deposits which could also supply much more gas than some of the others."
Economics becomes more important as the cost and the time required to secure the right to explore gas well development increase.
"In 2000, it took about 67 days to obtain a single well permit," stated Zavadil. "Now it takes about 187 days."
There are already 47 shallow wells in the area where the corporation wants to explore.
The proposed exploration project site is about 80 square miles and opposition has surfaced because of the area's proximity to Nine Mile Canyon.
Pressures to drill more deep wells to supply the nation with natural gas may change some of the opposition.
Many experts in the field predict record high gas prices at the wholesale level next winter, which will be passed on to consumers.
"Not long ago, suppliers were paying $2 per thousand cubic feet. Now the price is rising and could easily reach $4 to $5 per thousand by the fall," said Zavadil. "Next winter, there are predictions it could go to $10 to $11."
If the prediction is accurate, many homes could be paying $500 or more next winter for heating costs.
According to the Barret Corporation representative, Utah has traditionally been bypassed for exploration, when compared to other states.
"There are three reasons for that," stated Zavadil. "First there has not been good access to pipelines so it can be taken to market efficiently. Second, it has been far from the major markets so the cost was too high."
"And third, it has been perceived as a somewhat hostile state to gas development. That's partly because of the Southern Utah Wilderness Association's opposition to development and partly because the population here has been somewhat unaware of how gas development works," continued the Barret Corporation representative
According to Zavadil, Utah also contains so much designated wilderness or wilderness study areas that many companies do not want to deal with the matter.
Barret Corporation is currently working on obtaining permission to conduct the geophysical survey in the proposed development area.
The study would be completed by Sullivan Natural Resources.
"I often wonder how much groups like SUWA are costing the state of Utah" pointed out the company's president, Dan Sullivan during the interview. "The fact is that a lot of the battle in this has to do with the actual science and not the emotion of the situation."
"People think a lot of our costs are involved with avoidance when we are doing seismic surveys, but much of it has to do with inventories of various kinds of things," added Sullivan. "For instance, often the cost of inventorying archeological sites is half our expense in doing a project."
While environmentalists and preservationists oppose Barret Corporation's proposal to drill in the area, archaeological sites appear to be the biggest roadblock to the company's plans.
"This area was explored before for shallow gas, as is proven by the existence of the wells in the area already," stated Zavadil. "Even with the techniques then none of the rock art was harmed."
Seismic exploration is often thought of as the "thumper trucks" of years past and how television documentaries show them tearing across the countryside crushing all the vegetation in their path.
"Things are different now," says Zavadil. "We still use those trucks on existing roads, but there are many other ways of transporting equipment in and doing it in a way that has much less impact on the area."
Geophysical exploration is done by monitoring vibration in the ground with a set of geophones while vibrations are caused by trucks, vibrating pads or by drilling.
In the proposed exploration area, over 40 percent of the land is unaccessible by vehicle and will be reached by a system called heliportable.
"We bring the small drilling equipment in by helicopter and fly it out after the hole is bored," said Zavadil. "We also mitigate the area after we are done. In a very short period of time you can hardly tell we were even there."
Zavadil points out that modern seismic surveys incorporate mitigation for every conceivable impact including cultural resources, wildlife, visual resources, fire, ground water and surface water.
The seismic permitting process has six actual steps that companies go through to get permission, and a seventh step that occassionaly occurs. These include surveying for source and receiver points, conducting biological and archeological surveys, developing mitigation plans and preparing an environmental assessment and conducting public hearings for the input of the citizens. The seventh step is dealing with the legal challenges presented by environmental groups.
"We figure we will spend about $4.3 million doing the survey, half of which will go to the local economy," stated Zavadil. "The capital investment per well will be between one and three million dollars. Finally, the royalties and taxes paid on each well will amount $150 to 600 thousand dollars. With the planned wells, expected to generate $40 million in production taxes and royalties over a 25 year period.."