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John Hollenhorst ReportingThere's been plenty of controversy in Utah lately, and you can expect a lot more in the future, over seismic exploration for oil and gas.
But what is it exactly? Why do some people fight it, while energy companies love it? When energy companies drill "wildcat" wells outside of known oil and gas fields, it's a high stakes gamble. Each well is a million dollars plus. Nearly nine out of ten end up as dry holes.
To improve those odds, a company called Wind River mapped out a complex pattern three years ago on a 26 square mile chunk of the Ute Indian Reservation. At 9,000 locations they used vibrator trucks and dynamite to send sound waves into the ground. Sound waves bounce off layers of rock, back up to seismic microphones.
A new generation of high-powered computers translates billions of pieces of seismic data, and displays the underground architecture in infinite detail.
Marc Eckles, Wind River Energy: "We're able basically to take a remote look at a huge block of the earth…can turn it and twist it and tip it over, drill holes through it."
The computer maps the pocket of gas in three dimensions, and shows exactly how it extends through a cross section of the surrounding rock layers.
Wind River drilled a spot identified by the technology and hit pay-dirt. The well initially produced more than 6,000 dollars worth of natural gas per day.
Marc Eckels, Wind River Resources Corp: "You bring the success rate up to about 70 percent. And in our particular case we're drilling our 12th well now. And we've had no dry holes."
Marc Eckels says that means much less exploratory drilling, much less environmental damage, and he says the seismic work itself hardly leaves a trace.
Marc Eckels, Wind River Resources Corp: "I won't say it's no impact, but it's a very light impact."
Steve Bloch, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: "Seismic operations have impacts, they have serious impacts. That's what the BLM’s own studies and the department of interior's own studies show."
But even the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance agrees that seismic exploration is acceptable in less sensitive areas. In the last three years, they've fought only four out of 11 Utah projects
Wind River pays the Ute Indian Tribe an 18 percent royalty on natural gas taken from the reservation.