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Delmont Council rejects seismic testing request

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What is Seismic Testing?

Seismic testing is a type of geophysical testing used to find natural gas pockets. The process also is used to predict earthquakes.

There are two types of seismic testing typical for oil and gas exploration. In two-dimensional testing, large, four-wheeled trucks commonly called “thumper trucks” travel along roadways and lower a large, vibrating pad to the ground every 200-300 feet. The vehicle produces sound waves that go through rock layers and are recorded by probes that are set in the ground. Data from those probes are transmitted to a truck that carries equipment to record soundwaves.

In three-dimensional testing, probes and explosive charges are set in a grid pattern across a geographic area. The charges are detonated, and the waves create a larger picture of where fault lines lie underground.

Jon Laughner, extension educator for Penn State Extension, said 3-D testing is more accurate and provides more information, but is more costly and labor-intensive. Most seismic testing in Pennsylvania has been 3-D testing or a combination of the two, Laughner said.

By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Although it wants to map subterranean gas pockets in Delmont, a Texas-based company won't have permission to survey borough-owned lands.

Delmont Council last week rejected a request by Cougar Land Services to complete seismic testing underneath the borough building. The proposed testing was in anticipation of future drilling by Chevron, borough solicitor Dan Hewitt said.

“They want to plant small bombs on your property, detonate them and do mapping,” Hewitt said. “There is no benefit to the borough.”

Seismic testing enables drilling companies to determine what areas are suitable for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which natural gas is extracted during Marcellus shale drilling. Using seismic waves, explosives or vibrating machines, drillers are able to “map” where pockets of gas are located. The process is used by to determine if drilling would be profitable on a particular property.

Cougar Land Services and Ion GX Technology, both based in Texas, are mapping about 102 square miles of land in Westmoreland County, including properties in Delmont and along the northern and eastern borders of Murrysville. Hewitt said about 10,000 property owners throughout the county will receive requests for seismic testing.

There are pros and cons to allowing seismic testing, said Jon Laughner, extension educator for Penn State Extension. Property owners should consider the downside — seismic testing brings trucks and workers to a property — before signing an agreement. While a property owner can stipulate where a testing company can and can't go on the property, there will be a disturbance, Laughner said.

Fear is another problem. Laughner said the most common concern he hears is from people afraid that testing will affect their water supply.

“It's the fear of the unknown — as lay people, we don't know how rock transmits the charge,” he said. “Generally, there are very, very few problems associated with (seismic testing). But the potential is there. And that scares people.”

While seismic testing does not tell drillers how much gas is contained in the shale, it does help drillers determine the most efficient way to extract the gas.

“Seismic testing helps (drillers) make better decisions,” Laughner said. “It can help them produce more energy from each well.”

For those who own the mineral rights on a property, that's a pretty good incentive, Laughner said. Delmont does not own the mineral rights on the property beneath the borough building — so any drilling on the property would not be profitable for the borough. Current leases filed with Westmoreland County give property owners approximately one-eighth of the profit a driller earns from selling the gas extracted from the property.

In Murrysville, there could be a benefit to allowing seismic testing — the municipality retained the mineral rights to Murrysville Community Park, for which Monroeville-based drilling company Huntley & Huntley has expressed interest in leasing the subsurface rights. However, Chief Administrator Jim Morrison said the municipality hasn't received any requests for testing on municipal land.

But residents of Murrysville have, he said. His office has fielded many calls from property owners who have received the letters.

In 2011, the municipality adopted regulations for seismic testing, a process not affected by Act 13, the state's unconventional well drilling regulations. If a Murrysville resident elected to allow seismic testing on their property, it could only be completed on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. or sunset, whichever is earliest, and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. or sunset on Saturdays. Testing is not permitted on Sundays.

But before moving forward with signing a contract, Hewitt suggested that property owners who receive a request from Cougar Land Services contact private legal counsel to determine the best decision for the individual property. Laughner agreed.

“As long as you own the property, it's your choice to say ‘yes' or ‘no,'” Laughner said. “They might tell you that Sam down the road who has a couple hundred acres has signed and make the implication that if you don't sign, you're a knucklehead.

“But it's your land. It's a contract ,and it's binding. You need legal advice.”

Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627.

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