New IAGC head says geophysical firms must rebut subsea noise claims

Jan. 3, 2002
Charles F. Darden has completed nearly 27 years as president of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. G.C. "Chip" Gill, his successor, brings a new perspective to that role. One of his challenges will be defending the industry on the subsea noise issue.

Sam Fletcher
OGJ Online

HOUSTON, Jan. 3 -- Still employed as a consultant, Charles F. "Chuck" Darden is winding down an almost 27-year career as the first -- and until recently, only -- full-time president of the Houston-based International Association of Geophysical Contractors.

Darden announced in May that he planned to retire. One of his last official duties was to help recruit G.C. "Chip" Gill as his successor.

Gill, a 22-year veteran of the oil and gas industry and former vice-president of membership and strategic planning for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, was named IAGC president in September. The transition occurred Nov. 1.

IAGC, which also has offices in Sevenoaks, England, represents its international members providing or supporting all phases of geophysical exploration for oil and natural gas. It is the primary contact between the geophysical industry and government bodies at every level.

Darden was with the association through its most turbulent years, beginning back when 3D was an outdated movie gimmick and seismic crew counts were the predicator of future drilling activity before the industry discovered speculative group shoots.

"My biggest challenge was adapting each year to a new chairman (selected from member companies) with a different personality and priorities. But it also has been my greatest joy in seeing how the leaders of this small, specialized industry always rise to the occasion and see that we have the resources to accomplish our goals," Darden told OGJ Online.

"It's been a roller coaster ride with all the ups and downs of the industry and the challenges that oil service companies continue to face," he said. "It has been particularly challenging to keep a small organization like IAGC financially solvent and results-oriented."

Yet even as the seismic industry consolidated and downsized, he said, member companies have supported the organization with both money and manpower.

"IAGC started in 1971 with 27 members, including 6 or 7 oil companies," said Darden. The association grew fairly steadily to a peak of some 370 member companies in September 1981. From that point, Darden said, membership dwindled away through "gradual annual attrition" as a result of acquisitions, mergers, and business failures.

"Membership finally reached a plateau of 200-220 companies around 1990, and we have maintained that level ever since," he said.

During that period, IAGC evolved from an organization of primarily US geophysical companies to an international association with chapters representing the Americas; Europe, Africa, and the Middle East; and Asia Pacific. "When I joined IAGC, there were only two member companies that were based outside the US," said Darden. "Now it's rare to find a geophysical company that is not international in its organization and operations."

One of the major accomplishments and continuing challenges for the IAGC is development of industry-wide guidelines and procedures for the safest, most environmentally conscious, and efficient geophysical operations possible. That has remained a primary goal since the group's inception.

Another continuing battle has been to gain and retain access to areas of exploration and development around the world. It seems sometimes that no sooner does IADC beat down a fee increase or some other restrictive regulation of access in one area than it has to fight the almost identical battle in another county, state, or country.

"Access to areas of exploration and production remains a primary issue throughout the petroleum industry," Darden said. "But the geophysical segment, as the first step in the E&P process, faces these challenges before anyone else."

Gill said, "What has changed, particularly in the US onshore, is that environmentalists have targeted us and have developed a cookie-cutter approach for challenging us under the legal process."

Moreover, he said, that confrontation extends far beyond US land operations. "Our activities seem to be challenged more and more around the world," he said. "One possibility is that opponents see us for what we are -- the inlet for the (upstream oil and gas industry) pipeline."

In an effort "to be more proactive rather than a barrier" to attacks on the industry, IAGC is forming a task force to address the emerging issue of the effects on whales, dolphins, and other sea-life from subsea sound generated by seismic air gun arrays and other man-made sources. A review of that issue by industry, environmental, scientific and government experts will be a featured segment of a Feb. 19-20 IAGC conference in Houston.

Three-dimensional marine seismic technology has been a key factor in opening deepwater frontiers around the globe to oil and gas exploration. Loss of that technology would make deepwater drilling prohibitively expensive.

"This issue is a huge threat to the upstream industry. It could shut down the whole upstream pipeline," said Gill. "Sources of underwater noise are not just from seismic air guns. Normal daily operations from supply boats to drilling to platform removal also generate sound. Tankers are enormously noisy."

All of that pales in comparison to the noise generated by nature through waves, rain, and storms.

However, Gill said, "It's important for us not to deny this issue is out there but to be part of the solution by bringing good science to the investigation of that problem. It's important in this case to determine if there is harm to those mammals and, if so, the source of that harm." IAGC also would want to "balance the cost of any mitigation to the benefits received," he said.

IAGC could join efforts with some marine science group to "identify any gaps in the research," said Gill.

"This is a top priority," he said. "We're building credibility by stepping up to this issue in a reasonable manner."

WesternGeco, the world's largest seismic contractor formed through a joint venture by Schlumberger Ltd. and Baker Hughes Inc., has made an industry challenge pledge of $500,000 to finance the task force study.

To remain relevant in the new century, IAGC must provide value to its members in return for their financial support, said Darden. "It's the perfect point in time to have a new leader take charge. I believe Chip Gill is the perfect man for that job," he said.

"My bias is on delivering value to our members," Gill said. "It's crucial for us to be clear about who we represent and to focus on those issues that are most important to our members."

As a relatively small industry association with only five paid staff members, he said, IAGC probably could be more effective by targeting a few key issues instead of a "scatter shot" attack on many.

Contact Sam Fletcher at [email protected]