The Land of Black Gold

December 1, 2009
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Pennsylvania surveyor Mike Aimonetti has built a good portion of his business around servicing oil- and gas-well owners. GPS technology has helped him cope with the increased workload.


Located in northwest Pennsylvania, adjacent to New York’s Southern Tier, the Allegheny National Forest consists of 513,325 acres of prime woodland and sits atop some prolific oil sands. Over the last century, those sands have yielded impressive volumes of oil, according to Jim Ball, LS, owner of James Ball Land Surveyor in Wellsville, N.Y. “Regional records show that more than 166 million barrels of crude oil have been pumped from the Allegheny sands since the late 1800s, when the first well was drilled in Petrolia, not far from here,” he says. “A lot of that activity has been in the Allegheny National Forest which--with a projected 160 million barrels still remaining--now has more than 8,000 active wells with about another 1,200 being added each year.”

David Heflin, rodman for Lang Surveying, looks on as senior technician George Lazusky enters data into a Topcon FC-2000 as part of the well-mapping process.

Servicing the scores of oil and gas companies holding leases on mineral rights in the forest has become a focus for James Ball Land Surveyor and a number of other surveying firms in the area. Chuck Lang, PLS, owner of Bradford, Pa.-based Lang Surveying, says that while he also does boundary and topographic work, more than 95 percent of the firm’s current business is well-related. “I am currently working with 15 different oil and gas companies,” he says. “We are called upon to get our clients to a point where a well can be permitted and drilled, and doing so can differ from one client to another. However, to ensure compliance with all local, state and federal regulations, each project starts with mapping the area in which the well--or wells--will be drilled. That allows the client to document where any roads are, if there are any existing wells on that land, topographic features like streams, and so on.”

With a map completed, Lang says, the client will either have his or her geologist tell him where they want the wells drilled, or the client will ask him to do the layout himself. “At that point, it’s really up to the client,” Lang says, “but we offer them that option.”

Topcon’s FC-2000 field controller has proven invaluable for Lang in collecting points for gas- and oil-well work throughout the area. The increase in speed and productivity, Lang says, means more-satisfied clients.

Reaching Up to Get Down

At the outset of his business, Lang says he used conventional traverse surveying methods to map wells. However, because so much of his work is in the forest, using conventional methods was a lengthy, time-consuming process. That all changed with the advent of GPS. “I try to stay abreast of all the changes in the industry and began to see the benefits that GPS could offer,” he says. “So, about 10 years ago, I spoke to my equipment supplier, Roy Boyd from Boyd Instrument and Supply Co. Inc., and made the switch--first leasing equipment, then, about five years later, purchasing my own. I’ve been using Topcon’s Legacy-E GPS+ receiver for the last several years but recently upgraded to their GR-3 receiver. It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say GPS has revolutionized our business.”

The transition to GPS was smooth because the Topcon system allowed Lang to localize on existing control. “I had 10 years’ worth of conventional control in the oil fields out here--traverse points all over the place,” he says. “And a lot of our work is at many of the same sites from year to year, so with this equipment, I can go out, localize on existing control and start working immediately.”

The advantages of GPS in his line of work are “blatantly obvious,” according to Lang, and center around speed and accuracy. He says nailing down property corners and tying in to old wells is easily three times faster than traditional methods. Reliability is key, as well, he adds, and the GR-3 receiver can track 20 satellites (L1 or L2 GPS or Glonass) at the same time without any channel switching--a huge plus for keeping on schedule. Dual-constellation receivers pick up and maintain sufficient signal strength to allow work in challenging environments such as the forest canopy under which Lang frequently has to work. “The market really drives this business, so almost all my clients want things done in a hurry,” he says. “Utilizing GPS allows us to get a lot of work done in a much shorter period of time--without forsaking quality. And that makes everyone happy.”

Keeping Up With Demand

In the small Pennsylvania community of Mt. Jewett, Mike Aimonetti is seeing an equally heavy workload driven by oil and gas customers. As owner of Sylvan Surveys Inc. (“Sylvan” means “one who frequents groves or woods”), he has spent a good part of the last 20 years in the forest doing well plats and preparing applications for his customers.

As with Lang, time is of the essence since the overall process to get a well approved can take eight months or more. “If we start in November, we will be getting wells set for the drilling season, which will start in the late summer or early fall of the following year. It has to work its way through permitting, clearing, road building, pad construction and so on. So it will be July, August or September before any drilling actually starts.”

Spotting wells, as Aimonetti calls it, is often done after one or two wells have already been drilled and the subsurface conditions have been verified. From there, he grids the area in 400-foot increments using the Topcon HiPer Lite+ receiver.

“Another approach is to get wells set on an existing property line to prevent the adjacent lease holder from drilling there,” he says. “In that case, we move in about 50 feet off the line and spot a well every 400 feet or so. When that is done, we post process the data using Topcon Tools software, which gives us the latitude and longitude and the coordinates for each well. Then we bring it into our topographic program where we produce the ties for the property corners--and at that point it becomes almost like a property survey. The resultant well plat we produce shows an area−with topo features−of a couple hundred feet around a single well, ready for submittal to the Department of Environmental Protection.”

The increase in drilling activity over the last couple of years has placed some serious workload demands on Aimonetti--demands he says he could not possibly meet without GNSS receivers and data collectors. “Even in heavily wooded areas, the Topcon HiPer Lite+ receiver holds its signal lock better than any other equipment I’ve ever used,” he says. “I am one surveyor working alone, and on a single day last week, I did eight wells using the Topcon system. In years gone by, using a traditional approach, it would have taken me up to a week to do a single well.”

GPS + ATV

Back across the New York border, Jim Ball is wrapping up another well-related project with GPS. He is quick to point out, however, that the growth in popularity of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) as part of the land surveyor’s operation has magnified the single biggest positive of GPS--namely, speed. “I’ve been involved in survey-related oil-field work since the 1970s and, in the last few years, have teamed up on a number of larger projects with Steve Hubertus, a friend and colleague based out of nearby Hornell, N.Y.,” he says. “When each of us started doing this type of work, we would measure boundaries using a tape and transit. Then we went to EDM [electronic distance measurement] equipment, which essentially cut our time in half. Dual-constellation GNSS has totally rewritten the book on productivity for us.”

Hubertus and Ball are currently working on a 253-acre survey project nearby that Ball says would have easily taken about three weeks of field time using conventional technology--if it could have been done at all, given the terrain, cliffs, etc. Using a Topcon GMS-2 GPS system and a pair of ATVs, the two surveyors gave their client enough data to generate a usable map--and accomplished the project in about four hours.

“It’s a whole new ballgame now,” Ball says.

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