Stage 1: Initial Assessment

Health issues in this section:

Air Quality Water Quality Water Quantity Safety Diseases Quality of Life

What is the company doing at this stage?

What is the company doing at this stage? 1

In the early stages of shale development, a company—or possibly several companies—determines whether or not to develop potential oil and gas reserves in your area. Before making the decision to pursue development at a site, companies first take the time and invest resources in studying and understanding the area.

In an area where potential oil and gas reserves have not yet been exploited, a variety of oil and gas operators, ranging from small companies to multinational corporations, might be seeking to assess the resources. At this stage, the identity of the operator is often not apparent because companies do not wish to alert their competitors to their possible interest in the area. Operators therefore hire a third-party surveyor to conduct early exploration activities on their behalf. The third-party survey company might be providing information to one company, several different companies, or conducting their own exploratory surveys in the hope of later selling the information to an oil and gas operator. 

Oil and gas reserves are found almost exclusively in sedimentary rocks contained within certain geologic structures. To determine whether such structures are present, the survey company may undertake the following geophysical exploration activities:

  • reviewing the historical records of the area under investigation
  • reviewing geologic field maps, previous well drilling data, and coring information
  • conducting field work to examine the geologic properties on the surface
  • performing subsurface remote sensing, using photography, LiDAR, and infrared images to locate the target geologic structures
  • conducting seismic testing

The most common geophysical exploration method is seismic testing. If sufficient geologic and/or geophysical data is already available in your area, however, the operator may forgo additional seismic testing. This test does not confirm the presence of oil or gas deposits, but rather indicates a rock type that is likely to contain them.

Seismic tests artificially generate sound waves picked up by receivers (geophones) to create a 2- or 3-dimensional subsurface map. To create the sound waves, the company can 1) employ thumper trucks (which drop heavy weights on roads or other surfaces), 2) detonate explosive charges (a specialized form of dynamite) deep underground, or 3) use a ground-shaking device. 

Depending on state and local requirements, the seismic survey company may be required to obtain a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) permit for the transport of heavy loads. Additionally, the company might need to post a bond to hedge against any damages to roads or other public infrastructure. Other possible requirements include employing traffic officers, posting safety signage, and notifying nearby residents of the planned seismic survey work. 

If the company wishes to survey on private land, it is often necessary to obtain permission from the property owner. In some cases, the company provides nominal compensation to those who sign permission slips for seismic survey work on their property. Not all jurisdictions require companies to obtain landowner permission, however. 2 For information on the regulations in your state governing exploration, contact the relevant state agency (see Table 2 for a list of agencies).


  1. The sections on company practice were based on descriptions in several documents, including Ground Water Protection Council and ALL Consulting, Modern Shale Gas in the United States: A Primer; National Energy Technology Laboratory, Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: An Update; United States Government Accountability Office, Oil and Gas: Information on Shale Resources, Development, and Environmental and Public Health Risks;  Shell Oil Company, “Life of an Onshore Well” (graphic animation); Geological Society of America website “GSA Critical Issue: Hydraulic Fracturing”; and Earthworks, Oil and Gas at Your Door? A Landowner’s Guide to Oil and Gas Development. These sections were then refined through interactions with industry representatives and consultants via document edits, Work Group guidance, and input in the June 11, 2015 multi-stakeholder workshop.
  2. Can You Conduct a Seismic Survey without a Landowner’s Permission?” (August 14, 2013).

What might my community experience?

In the beginning, some of the initial assessment activities might not be noticeable to residents. It is common to spot a team of geologists taking pictures and making field observations. Seismic tests, on the other hand, are likely to draw attention. If using thumper or vibrator trucks, the survey team may employ as many as 5–6 trucks 1 accompanied by personal vehicles. Depending on the size of the sample area, the testing takes place over a period of days to months. A seismic survey team can cover several miles a day on average, and the surveys typically cover 50–100 square miles or more. 2

If the survey company plans to conduct seismic tests on private property, the company will contact landowners to notify them when it will take place and/or request their permission. Company personnel will first survey the property to stake out the exploration area and to mark areas for the survey team to avoid. Depending on the type of survey, they might temporarily place geophones (a receiver for the sound waves generated by the testing), data boxes, or cables on the property. The company might cut narrow lanes through forested areas or brush for the survey equipment. If using explosive charges, the company drills small diameter shot holes that can be up to 150 feet deep (although they not usually more than 80 feet deep). 3

During seismic testing, approximately 40 members of the survey team will set up the seismic recording equipment, generate the sound waves—either by moving a thumper or vibrator truck through the area or detonating the charges—and record the data. After testing is complete, the company should remove all the equipment and materials and plug any shot holes. Depending on the type of test, the equipment might be present on the property for a few days to 3–4 weeks.

Will seismic exploration activities cause any damage? If so, who will cover repairs?

Due to their weight, seismic survey trucks can damage roads and bridges or cause surface disturbance if the infrastructure is not well-maintained or cannot accommodate heavy loads (even DOT-permitted ones). Such disturbance could possibly lead to erosion and sedimentation of surface waters. 4

If the surveyor uses underground dynamite charges instead of trucks, the detonations take place far enough underground that they do not impact the surface. The shot holes drilled for such testing might disturb the water table, however, affecting the flow of water to wells or allowing contaminants to migrate into the groundwater. 5 Company ATVs and other vehicles can also cause surface disturbance or leave track marks. 

Companies must comply with state regulations covering exploration activities, which often include requirements to post a bond for any damages and to plug shot holes, among other provisions. Companies are required to compensate public or private property owners for any damages or the impacts of “non-normal” use that takes place during seismic surveying. 6 If landowners sign a permit to access their property, there may be provisions pertaining to any damages sustained. For information on the regulations in your state, contact the state oil and gas regulatory agency (see Table 2).

Could seismic testing cause earthquakes?

Seismic testing has long been a feature of traditional oil and gas exploration, preceding the recent boom in shale development, and this aspect of the process has not been linked to earthquakes. The amount of explosives used in seismic surveying (approximately 10–20 pounds), is much less than would be needed to generate seismic waves similar to a 1.5 earthquake on the Richter scale (320 pounds). 7 Vibrator trucks generate even less energy than explosives. 8 For more on the topic of seismicity, see the safety section in Stage 4.


  1. Rigzone, “Training: How Does Land Seismic Work?”, accessed September 20, 2015.
  2. John B. McFarland, “How Do Seismic Surveys Work?Oil and Gas Lawyer Blog (April 15, 2009).
  3. Mark R. Milligan, “What Are Seismic Surveys and How Much ‘Shaking’ Do They Create?” Utah Geological Survey website (July 3, 2004). 
  4. Earthworks, Oil and Gas at Your Door? pp. 6–13.
  5. Earthworks, Oil and Gas at Your Door? pp. I-7.
  6. Can You Conduct a Seismic Survey without a Landowner’s Permission?” (August 14, 2013).
  7. Mark R. Milligan, “What Are Seismic Surveys and How Much ‘Shaking’ Do They Create?” Utah Geological Survey website (July 3, 2004). Earthquakes of magnitude 1.5 to 2 on the Richter scale are rarely felt.
  8. Mark R. Milligan, “What Are Seismic Surveys?”

What health considerations are there?

Water Quality

There could be some localized water quality impacts as a result of seismic exploration activities. As mentioned above, the creation of survey lines or vehicle track marks can cause surface disturbance. If not restored, they can lead to erosion and runoff into waterways. Earthworks, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to protect communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development, indicates a few considerations for private well owners with regard to seismic testing. For example, private well water could be affected if the shot holes reach the water table and are not properly plugged. 1 In this case, the shot holes could provide a pathway for contaminants to the groundwater supplying the wells. Earthworks also notes that underground seismic explosions could also impact subsurface water flow and pressure, potentially reducing well water supply. 2


  1.  Earthworks, Oil and Gas at Your Door? pp. I-7.
  2. Earthworks, Oil and Gas at Your Door? pp. I-7.

What health considerations are there?

Quality of Life

Initial exploration activities can begin to affect the physical environment of your community, particularly if you live in a rural area unaccustomed to traffic. During the few weeks that these activities take place, heavy trucks and convoys of other vehicles could be present on local roads, and the accompanying traffic and noise, although temporary, could affect residents’ quality of life.

When people in your community become aware of the potential for shale development in the area, they might begin to form expectations in anticipation of both the costs and benefits of that development. At this stage of early exploration, however, companies are still highly uncertain as to whether they will find sufficient mineral deposits to make development worthwhile.

What can be done to address health concerns? What have others done?

Local Officials

Once exploration activities start to become apparent, community members will likely start to form expectations around potential shale development. It can be useful at that point to put the activities in context. Local officials, operators, and seismic survey company representatives can assist by notifying residents and community leaders that surveying will take place, providing information on what to expect, and clarifying the likelihood that initial exploration activities will lead to next steps—and if so, on what time frame. These topics could be addressed at local town or county board meetings, local planning or zoning hearings, or an informational open house. 

Given that there can be a number of operators and seismic survey companies exploring an area, it is important to make an effort to include all of them in the planning and execution of community outreach activities.

Industry Representatives

The American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry association, has produced a set of guidelines for oil and gas operators on how to communicate with and engage local stakeholders around their projects. The document notes that many operators are already following practices similar to those described in the guidelines, and that its recommendations are “typical and reasonable” under normal operating circumstances. 1 The guidelines offer engagement options for all phases of the project development cycle, including the initial entry phase. Acknowledging that different operators can be exploring the same area, the guidelines suggest that companies coordinate with each other when reaching out to local stakeholders.  

The guidelines emphasize early two-way communication and proactive outreach to stakeholders, which companies should maintain throughout the life of the project. Other key recommendations for this phase include setting professional standards for both contractors and employees, providing training, and conveying company guidelines for safety, environmental, and health practices. It is also important to manage the expectations of stakeholders and contractors, especially given that the project often does not proceed past this stage. Companies should therefore develop a strategy for withdrawal and communicating to stakeholders about that scenario, even in this initial phase. 

The seismic survey company can undertake a number of actions to reduce community impact. The API guidelines encourage operators to work with their contractors as well as local agencies and officials to promote road safety and good traffic management. 2 To avoid interfering with regular traffic patterns, for example, the seismic survey team often meets with local officials to learn about peak travel times in the area, school bus routes, and the optimal areas for parking. They also meet with the official in charge of local infrastructure to learn which roads and bridges to avoid or to upgrade prior to seismic survey work. 

Some survey companies use the following methods to reduce the impacts of their activities:

  • obtaining permission from landowners before conducting seismic tests on private property
  • establishing a safe buffer zone between seismic testing activities and potentially sensitive structures or objects
  • when clearing paths (lines) for seismic equipment, cutting narrow lanes, including slight bends to prevent  predators having an easy view of their prey; avoiding valuable trees; and avoiding the creation of ruts
  • plugging shot holes on both ends
  • removing all equipment, materials, stakes and waste after testing is done
  • repairing any rutting or surface disturbance that may have occurred

Finally, companies might also discuss their survey plans with landowners to help them avoid sensitive or valuable areas. The surveyor might seek to conduct seismic tests as far from surface waters as possible to reduce the potential for erosion and runoff into bodies of water.


Earthworks, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to protect communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development, has developed a handbook for landowners in areas where oil and gas development is taking place. Among other recommendations, Earthworks suggests that landowners discuss the placement of the equipment or the location of the seismic testing activities with the company before the tests take place to minimize any surface disturbance. If property owners are using a well for drinking water, Earthworks advises landowners to consider testing the water before and after seismic exploration on their property to establish a baseline and allow them to note any changes that take place. For more on potential impacts and tips for landowners, see the resources section below.  


  1. American Petroleum Institute (API), Community Engagement Guidelines, ANSI/API Bulletin 100-3, first edition (July 2014)
  2. API, Community Engagement, pp. 6.

What resources can provide further information?

Stakeholder Engagement

  • American Petroleum Institute, “Community Engagement Guidelines,” ANSI/API Bulletin 100-3, first edition (July 2014). The industry association has released a set of recommendations for oil and gas companies on communication and stakeholder engagement activities around oil and gas development projects.
  • International Council on Mining and Metals, “Community Development Toolkit,” (July 20, 2012). The toolkit contains guidance and tools for community development, relationship-building, planning, assessment, management, and monitoring and evaluation. Developed for the mining industry, these tools may be adapted to the oil and gas sector.

What resources can provide further information?

Water Quality Monitoring

  • Garfield County, Colorado, Department of Public Health, “Water Treatment Decision Guide.” This guide gives guidance to well owners on how to interpret the results of well water quality laboratory reports and gives guidance on what actions to take in light of the results.
  • Penn State Extension, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences website, “Drinking Water.” The Penn State Extension website contains information, recorded webinars, and resources on how to test private well water and interpret the results.
  • Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project website, “Water.” The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWP-EHP) is a nonprofit environmental health organization that offers support to Southwestern Pennsylvania residents who are concerned about the health impacts of gas drilling. The website contains guidelines, step-by-step guidance, and tips for testing private well water. 

What resources can provide further information?

Quality of Life

  • Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Well” (June 2014). This brochure for landowners gives an overview of the lifecycle of a typical well and answers questions that landowners may have. The regulations and agencies mentioned are Canadian.
  • Earthworks, “Oil and Gas at Your Door? A Landowner’s Guide to Oil and Gas Development” (Durango, Colorado: Oil and Gas Accountability Project, 2005). Earthworks is an advocacy organization working on natural resource extraction issues. This handbook describes the stages of oil and gas development; potential impacts of oil and gas development on health, safety, and quality of life; alternative technologies and practices; the legal and regulatory issues; tips for landowners; and landowner stories. For more details on seismic exploration and tips for landowners, see pp. I-6 – I-7.  

What resources can provide further information?

Table 2. State Oil and Gas Regulatory Agencies

Note: States that are not listed do not have a regulatory agency specific to oil and gas. In some states, other agencies, such as geological survey agencies, could be useful sources of scientific information related to shale development.


State Oil and Gas Regulatory Agencies Contact Information
Alabama State Oil and Gas Board Website
Phone: 205-349-2852
Alaska Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission Website
Phone: 907-279-1433
  Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas

Phone: 907-269-8800 

Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Website
Phone: 520-770-3500
Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission Website
Phone: 479-646-6611
California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Website
Phone: 916-445-9686
Colorado Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Website
Phone: 303-894-2100
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Website
Phone: 850-245-8336
Georgia Department of Natural Resource, Environmental Protection Division Website
Phone: 888-373-5947
Idaho Idaho Department of Lands Website
Phone: 208-334-0200
Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Oil and Gas Resource Management Website
Phone: 217-782-7756
Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas Website
Phone: 317-232-4055
Kansas Kansas Corporation Commission, Conservation Division Website
Phone: 785-271-3100
Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas Website
Phone: 502-573-0147
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Office of Conservation Website
Phone: 225-342-5540
Maryland Maryland Department of the Environment Website
Phone: 410-537-3000
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals Website
Phone: 517-284-6823
Mississippi Mississippi Oil and Gas Board

Phone: 601-576-4900

Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Website
Phone: 573-368-2143
Montana Board of Oil and Gas Website
Phone: 406-656-0040
Nebraska Nebraska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission Website
Phone: 308-254-6919
Nevada Division of Minerals Website
Phone: 775-684-7040
New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, Oil Conservation Division Website
Phone: 505-476-3458
New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Mineral Resources Website
Phone: 518-402-8056
North Carolina Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources Website
Phone: 919-707-9234
North Dakota Industrial Commission, Department of Mineral Resources, Oil and Gas Division Website
Phone: 701-328-8020
Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil and Gas Website
Phone: 614-265-6565
Oklahoma Oklahoma Corporation Commission, Oil and Gas Division Website
Phone: 405-521-2240
Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries Website
Phone: 541-967-2039
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Oil and Gas Management Website
Phone: 717-783-2300
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Website
Phone: 803-898-3432
South Dakota Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Website
Phone: 605-677-5227
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Website
Phone: 615-687-7120
Texas Railroad Commission of Texas Website
Phone: 512-463-6838
Utah Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil, Gas and Mining Website
Phone: 801-538-5340
Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Division of Gas and Oil Website
Phone: 804-692-3200
Washington Department of Natural Resources, Division of Energy, Mining and Minerals Website
Phone: 360-902-1450
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Oil and Gas Website
Phone: 304-926-0450
Wyoming Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Website
Phone: 307-234-7147

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