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.
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.