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Alberta Landowners Guide, Geophysical Exploration

Landowners Guide Cover.jpg
3rd edition
Authors:            Duncan Kenyon, Nikki Way, Andrew Read, Barend Dronkers, Benjamin Israel, Binnu Jeyakumar, Nina Lothian
Publisher: Pembina Institute
Publish Date: October 2016
PDF Download: [Landowners' Guide]              [Landowners' Primer]
Initiation Phase
Exploration Phase
                Geophysical Exploration
                Compensation and Access
                Landowner and Occupant Rights
Development Phase
Pipelines and Other Infrastructure
Environmental Impacts
Abandonment and Reclamation
Compensation, Rights, and Hearings

Exploration for Oil and Gas

This chapter examines your rights when a company wants to conduct a seismic survey on the land you own or occupy.[1] It details the many steps of geophysical exploration and provides guidance on permit negotiation, how to provide input depending on whether you are a landowner or a lessee, potential risks and implications of seismic operations for your land, and how to lodge complaints.

Overview of Geophysical Exploration

Geophysical exploration aims to discover whether saleable mineral resources lie beneath the land surface. Companies may conduct seismic surveys and drill test holes, or use other techniques that provide subsurface information.

Geophysical exploration is now regulated by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), governed by newer directives (issued in 2013) in addition to the Exploration Regulation (2006).[2]

In seismic surveys, vibrations are sent through the ground using either dynamite charges placed below the ground in shot holes or large trucks that vibrate heavy plates on the ground (vibroseis). Data is recorded on receiving devices — either in two dimensions using one line of receiver “geo-phones” along a shot line, or more often now with a three-dimensional technique using simultaneous recording along multiple receiver lines. See Figure 2.

Access to land

On private property

A company that wants to conduct seismic activities in the White Area (settled portion) of the province[3] will first send a permit agent to negotiate with the landowners and occupants.[4] The permit agent should provide these parties with a Seismic Information Pamphlet[5] that explains what seismic surveys involve and who to contact with a problem, query or complaint. Further information on seismic activity can be found in Seismic Operations and Landowners’ Rights.[6] A seismic operator is not allowed to enter private property unless the landowner or occupant (or that person’s agent) gives permission. The landowner/occupant has the right to refuse access for seismic exploration.[7] In the case where land is under an agricultural lease agreement, the permit agent must obtain the permission of the landowner as well as that of the leaseholder, as the seismic activity might cause impacts that last beyond the lease period. It is recommended that the agricultural lease includes details regarding how a negotiation with a seismic company should be handled to make sure lessees’ concerns and constraints are heard. In any case, the landowner has exclusive right to refuse the geophysical operations and the seismic operator has no appeal.[8]

On leased public or Crown land

To access a grazing lease or farm development lease on public or Crown land, a company must first obtain from the Minister an approval to explore. The company then needs to obtain the leaseholder’s consents in writing and inform them at least five days before carrying out any activities. If the leaseholder does not consent, the local public lands staff can be contacted to facilitate an agreement. If the local public lands staff are unsuccessful and the leaseholder refuses access, or they cannot reach agreement on compensation, the company can apply to the Surface Rights Board for a right-of-entry order (see Right-of-entry orders when landowner and company cannot agree).[9] If the leaseholder and company are unable to agree due to land use or operational concerns, either of them can write to the Local Settlement Officer to request a formal review. The officer will provide a written notice of his/her decision. If the leaseholder or company find the officer’s decision unsatisfactory, either of them may write to the Provincial Exploration Review Committee within seven days of receiving the decision and ask the committee for a review. This review can overrule the Local Settlement Officer’s decision or refer back to them with directions. The Committee’s decision will be binding.[10] (See Regulatory Appeals for AER Decisions Made Without a Hearing and Public Lands Act for more information on the powers of both the Surface Rights Board and the Provincial Exploration Review Committee with respect to public lands.)

Notification of activity

Permit agents are required to notify residents and landowners within 400 metres of any proposed seismic line at least 48 hours before activity starts in the White (settled) Area of the province.[11] Nearby landowners may want to request a pre-seismic test of the water quality and flow rates in their well.

The 8 steps of seismic exploration[12]
  1. The landowner is approached by the seismic company and a permit is negotiated and signed between the two parties.
  2. Access routes are established (using existing gates and/or by cutting fences as specified in the permit).
  3. Seismic lines are defined and cleared of brush and/or snow using a method authorized by the landowner.
  4. Markers are placed along the length of each seismic line. The position of each marker is surveyed using Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
  5. If the project uses an explosive energy source, shot holes are drilled and dynamite is loaded down each hole.
  6. Recording devices known as geophones are placed on the ground surface according to the markers placed by the survey crew.
  7. Vibrations are generated by detonating each shot hole in sequence (dynamite survey) or by positioning surface energy equipment (vibrators) on the seismic line and applying that type of surface energy in sequence. The energy waves, reflected back by the subsurface formations, are picked up by the geophones and relayed to the recording truck.
  8. Shot holes are plugged and sealed, compensation to the landowner and/or the leaseholder is paid, and the Geophysical Operations Release form is signed.


A company must follow requirements for setbacks, that is, the minimum distances that seismic shot lines and test hole drilling must be from buildings, water wells, irrigation works, oil or gas pipelines, wells, etc. The actual setback depends on whether explosive or non-explosive operations are being conducted and, in the case of explosives, the size of the charge. The required distances are set out in the Exploration Regulation (see Public Lands Act) and the relevant exploration directive.[13] Companies are allowed to conduct seismic exploration within the minimum setback distance if they meet certain conditions: the company must use a reduced charge, and must obtain the written consent of the owner for any explosive exploration or test hole that is less than 180 metres from a structure or a water well, and for any non-explosive exploration that is less than 100 metres from a water well.[14]

Although a setback of 15 metres is required for domestic septic tank and mounds, landowners may ask for a smaller charge size close to any septic systems as these are very sensitive to vibrations caused by seismic testing.

Plugging of seismic holes

This section only applies when the seismic operator uses explosives charges.

As soon as a seismic hole is drilled, it must be marked with an approved permit tag, facing the shot hole and displayed less than 10 metres from it. The tag shows the permit number of the geophysical contractor and the exploration approval number.[15]

The maximum explosive charge size depends on the required setback distance to the nearest structure. In any case, the explosive charge cannot exceed 20 kg without approval from the Alberta Energy Regulator. If a company wants to use a greater charge, it must provide the regulator with justification and obtain written approval before loading the explosive charge in the shot hole.[16]

After the charge is loaded, the hole must be plugged. In the White Area of the province, the standard practice is to insert a plastic hole plug into the hole approximately one metre below the surface,[17] followed by 40 cm of an approved product,[18] such as bentonite, to help seal it. The hole is then filled to the surface with drill cuttings or other material from the hole. For identification purposes, the plastic plug is marked with the permit number of the company conducting the seismic work.[19] Companies are allowed to spread drill cuttings, or other materials not required to fill the hole, over the surrounding ground. In rare cases the drill cuttings may have a very high clay content or a high concentration of salt that could affect the surface soil. In these instances the landowner may want to ask the company to remove excess drill cuttings from the site.

The explosive charge that was put into the hole must be detonated within 30 days and then the hole must be permanently abandoned. This includes cutting off the wire that was attached to the charge at ground level and ensuring that the hole is properly plugged.[20] If any of the shot holes have been blown out by the explosive charge, they must be filled again, as indicated above.

The Exploration Regulation requires the company to abandon each shot hole immediately after the detonation of the charge (no definition or timeframe is given in the regulations guidance for “immediately”) so that water does not flow to the surface or move from one underground aquifer to another.[21] As an Alberta government publication recommends, landowners can negotiate with the seismic company to put the plastic plug closer to the bottom of each hole (which may be 15–18 metres deep) and fill from the plug to the ground surface with bentonite pellets.[22] This would prevent the flow of surface water through the hole and into an underground aquifer, or the movement of water from one formation to another. Groups such as the Alberta Surface Rights Federation (see Alberta Surface Rights Federation) have advocated in the past for requirements that resemble seismic regulations in Wyoming and water wells in Alberta, where shot holes are not just plugged at the top, but are completely filled from bottom to top with bentonite (or a comparable impervious material).[23] This practice alleviates concerns that pollutants, such as herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or E. coli bacteria from cattle, may enter the groundwater through improperly plugged shot holes. The Alberta Surface Rights Federation has crafted an addendum that you can add as a special condition to any geophysical exploration agreement for your land.[24]

If water or gas is released from the ground when a seismic hole is drilled, the drilling must stop, no explosive must be set, and the company must contain the water or gas to the aquifer or stratum of origin using one of the approved methods.[25] The company must immediately submit a flowing hole report to the Alberta Energy Regulator. Additional precautions must also be taken for the next shot hole: it may be drilled only to a maximum depth that is 3 m less than either the drilled depth of the flowing hole or the point of encounter with water or gas in the previous shot hole.[26]


  1. This material is from the Pembina Institute publication 'Landowners' Guide to Oil and Gas Development, 3rd edition (2016)'
  2. Alberta, Exploration Regulation, 284/2006, s 11.
  3. “Since 1948, Alberta has been divided into two main areas, the Green Area (58%) and White Area (42%). The White Area (settled portion) consists of the populated central, southern and Peace River areas of the province. The Green Area (forested portion) includes most of northern Alberta as well as the mountain and foothills areas along the province’s western boundary.” Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Sustainable Forest Management: Current Facts & Statistics (2011). https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/5dab6b68-d6d5-402d-8c60-f946520681cf/resource/f6583967-a1f2-462b-8bb3-b1be888e648d/download/generalboundary-currentfactsandstatistics-2011.pdf. White and Green areas of the province are defined on the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Corporate Region Map (dated March 19, 2003). This chapter focuses on seismic exploration rules that apply to the White Area, with some guidance with respect to leased land in the Green Area.
  4. The Exploration Regulation and associated directives set legal requirements that protect the rights of the landowner and occupant with respect to seismic operations and outlines when consent is required (see Public Lands Act). While this regulation does not use the term “occupant,” it does refer to a “person having lawful possession of the land.”
  5. Canadian Association of Geophysical Contractors, Seismic Information Pamphlet.
  6. Farmers’ Advocate Office, Seismic Operations and Landowners’ Rights (2012). https://open.alberta.ca/publications/ag-dex-878-5. This link has been updated since the 2016 publication; the updated link may no longer contain the original information.
  7. The right to refuse access applies only to seismic exploration; it does not apply to land surveys, access to construct a well or pipeline, or geophysical operations associated with carbon capture and storage, including monitoring. Also it applies only to privately owned land, not to agricultural leases on public lands. In the event access is refused, the company has no appeal. However it may decide to conduct exploration around the lands by using road allowances. A company that would conduct exploration on private land without the owner’s consent faces a fine up to $25,000.
  8. Seismic Operations and Landowners’ Rights, p. 2-3.
  9. Alberta, Exploration Dispute Resolution Regulation, 227/2003, pt 2, s 19. Alberta government regulations are available at Alberta Queen’s Printer, “Laws Online/Catalogue.” http://www.qp.alberta.ca/Laws_Online.cfm
  10. Exploration Dispute Resolution Regulation, part 1.
  11. Seismic Operations and Landowners’ Rights, p. 4.
  12. Adapted from Seismic Operations and Landowners’ Rights, p. 1-2.
  13. Seismic Operations and Landowners’ Rights; also in Alberta Environment and Parks, Exploration Directive 2006-15: Distance Requirements. Exploration Directives are listed at AER, “Exploration Directives & Forms.” https://www.aer.ca/regulating-development/rules-and-directives/directives.html. This link has been updated since the 2016 publication; the updated link may no longer contain the original information.
  14. More information on water wells is provided in Water wells.
  15. Alberta, Exploration Regulation, s 55.
  16. Alberta Environment and Parks, Exploration Directive 2006-18: Charges in Shot Holes and Depth of Shot and Test Holes That Exceed Maximum Levels.
  17. Shot holes may be deeper than one meter. However Exploration Directive 2006-18 establishes that the maximum allowable depth of a shot hole or test hole in a program of exploration is 20 meters. Any deeper shot or test hole must be approved by the AER.
  18. This number is reduced to 20 cm if exploration takes place in the Green area of the province. Alberta Environment and Parks, Exploration Directive 2006-20: Permanent Abandonment of Shot Holes and Test Holes.
  19. Exploration Directive 2006-20.
  20. Exploration Directive 2006-20.
  21. Alberta, Exploration Regulation, s 45 and s 4151.
  22. Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development; Alberta Environment; and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Water Wells that Last, eighth edition (2013), 69. See also Water wells.
  23. Unless the company can prove that an alternative method will provide better protection to groundwater and long-term land stability, the operators are required to fill the shot hole with bentonite from the top of the explosive charge to a depth above the final water level (except where the final water level will be within three feet of the surface). A non-metallic plug must be set three feet below the surface and the hole above the plug must be filled with drill cuttings and tamped. Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Rules, Chapter 4. Section 6 (q)(iv). Geophysical/Seismic Operations.
    https://sites.google.com/a/wyo.gov/oil-and-gas/. This link has been updated since the 2016 publication; the updated link may no longer contain the original information.
  24. Alberta Surface Rights Federation, “Addendums: Geophysical Special Conditions Addendum.”
  25. Alberta Environment and Parks, Exploration Directive 2006-17: Flowing Holes and Encountering Gas. The directive mentions one exception to this: when a shot hole becomes a flowing hole before a charge is detonated, the charge is to be shot.
  26. Exploration Directive 2006-17.