Environmental Concerns With a Seismic Program in Alberta

When planning a seismic program, it is worthwhile to ensure that all the proper permits are in place. In this way, no hazardous environmental situations can occur on public or private land during or after field operations.

Seismic acquisition has existed in western Canada for a long time. its environmental impact is attracting more and more attention by landowners, tenants, the general public, contractors, oil companies and governments. There has been a proliferation of news and magazine articles, seminars, workshops, public forums and joint stakeholder committees on the subject of seismic activity and its impact.

Various factors must be addressed that affect all parties. Such factors include the rights of landowners or tenants, adjacent landowners and the crown. Paramount to any field programs are the liabilities of the oil company and the contractor conducting the geophysical operations. Also important is the goodwill of the company and their contractor. The old saying "good will, like a good name, is won by many acts and lost by one" is very true whenever an oil company or their contractor are in the field. There is often a tendency by the public to notice any mistakes made by the highly visible P & NG industry.

This month, we will focus on seismic operations in Alberta, but the process could have validity in almost any type of geophysical exploration across Canada. It is by no means a treatise on the procedures to obtain permits and licences for seismic work on public or private land, to maintain a property's natural state, or to act in a prudent manner on some one else's land.

This article is meant to highlight some of the necessary potential environmental problems that any seismic project may encounter. Environmental considerations in geophysical work encompass many factors such as damage or potential pollution to structures, water resources, soil, crops, wildlife, fish and humans.

Examples of some problems are:

  1. Placing shot holes too close to water wells: according to the regulations the minimum distance from shot holes to water wells is 180 metres. However, even this distance can cause damage to potable water flow, in some cases.
  2. Waste and garbage litter can affect crops and soil. flowing shot holes left unplugged can create damage to crops, animals, wildlife and even humans.
  3. Excessive cut lines and roads can change wildlife habitat and migration paths. Activities along streams or on ponds and lakes that contain fish can damage the aquatic habitat. The time of the year the seismic acquisition takes place also affects the animal and fish reaction to outside disturbance.
  4. Garbage and waste from camps and vehicles can create pollution of various types that could ultimately cause problems to humans, either directly or indirectly.

Some of these negative impacts caused by seismic field operations, like water well damage, may take years to surface before they become liabilities for the landowner. In cases such as these, the owner may have recourse to legal remedies from the oil companies and their contractors.

Alberta is divided into two areas as far as the administration of land is concerned. The "white area" is land that is "generally settled or suitable for settlement" and is usually farm or prairie land or cities and towns and is located mainly in southern and central Alberta. This area is administered by the public lands division. The "green area" is mostly permanent forest land and is located north and west of the "white area" and is administered by the Alberta forest service. Also, both areas come under the jurisdiction of the Alberta fish and wildlife division.

At the present time, there is considerable discussion between government, oil companies (in the form of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers or CAPP) and geophysical contractors as to how seismic exploration can mitigate a host of problems including environmental damage and pollution. The "Joint Government and Industry Geophysical Committee" has been on the forefront to ensure that all stakeholders in seismic activities, especially on public land, contribute to the talks. This forum ensures that ideas and concerns can be addressed so realistic laws and guidelines can be set to meet all the needs of the public, industry and landowners.

This committee sponsors annual meetings with field trips to seismic operations. Last year it was held in Slave Lake, Alberta and next year, the two day meeting will take place in Grand Prairie, Alberta. In the future, many of the procedures now needed to safeguard the environment on crown land will also apply to private land. Currently, the main document used for acquiring permission and carrying out operations for seismic activities on public land are the "Exploration Regulations, AR 32/90" and it's amendments.

There are also several other acts and regulations that may apply, but these can all be satisfied with one application. The Alberta government uses the "one window approach" for issuing permits and licences to perform seismic work to ensure that all concerns of an environmental nature are dealt with in a manner that protects the land for today and for the future. At present, there are over 450 seismic permit or licence holders registered with the provincial government.

The methods used to perform seismic work on private land are different than public land. On private property, there can be no access until the owner's permission is given. The landowner or farmer have total control over terms of entry. Seismic acquisition is the only oil and gas activity that a landowner can refuse with out any recourse by a company or their contractor.

In any application for seismic work on private land, the method and location of access are important considerations that could cause unforeseen environmental damage or misunderstanding at a later date. The access route should be described in detail on the application or landowner's agreement. In addition, between April 1st and October 31st, it may be necessary to submit a "fire control plan" under the "Forest & Prairie Protection Act and Regulations".

3-D seismic work has its own guidelines when making the application to acquire the data. When all the permits, approvals, agreements and permissions are in place, the environmental considerations to be aware of are: water wells, stream crossings, buildings and structures, fences, shot holes, crops, soil and roads. Aside from these items, care must be given to modification to wildlife access and habitat and harassment as well as fisheries control.

At present, low impact seismic (line cutting widths less than six metres, instead of the normal eight) and avoidance cutting (going around environmentally sensitive areas, instead of through them) are more common in order to mitigate problems later on for reclamation and compensation to the land owner. During any seismic program, reclamation should be a constant consideration, otherwise a contractor will have to spend extra time and money after the job is done to remedy problems like erosion, debris and garbage, timber salvage, removal of all flags, wires, river crossings, hole plugging, campsite trash and material clean up. The actual reclamation may also consist of reseeding damaged crops and grasses, within one growing season, with the recommended mixture of seeds.

At a recent Petroleum Industry Training Service (PITS) seminar, an interesting concept was presented by an Alberta reclamation & conservation officer regarding private land. This officer stated that "landowners are only custodians of the land for the crown". In other words, even though an oil company and a landowner mutually agree on the reclamation results and any compensation due after an exploration or development program, "the crown has the final say if the land meets all published criteria and regulations".

All personnel connected with the acquisition of seismic data should review the publications Provincial Geophysical Guidelines, the Conservation and Reclamation Code of Practice for Alberta and the Exploration Regulation A.R. 32/90 and it's amendments. The knowledge gained may make the project more cost effective and less time consuming in the long term when planning seismic programs in Alberta.



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