A new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that setbacks — the minimum allowable distance between a well and occupied residences, schools, or hospitals — are too close to where people live. According to the study, the current setbacks in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas leave residents vulnerable to explosions from well blowouts and to air pollution generated at wells “above health-based risk levels.”
Montana has no setback rules at all. The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) recently considered this issue, and has decided not to put setbacks in place. Pennsylvania’s minimum setback is 500 feet from any occupied building. Texas’ is 200 feet; Colorado’s is 500 to 1,000 feet.
“Five hundred feet, we know, is not sufficient,” says Marsha Haley, assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pittsburgh and the study’s lead author. “Unfortunately, there’s no defined safe setback distance.” The University of Maryland’s School of Public Health recommends that states set a distance of 2,000 feet from any well (see p. 91 at link) “I’d probably say that’s a good minimum distance,” Haley said. “We know there are studies that show increased hospitalization rates, decreased birth weights and increased cancer risks in those that live that close to a well.”
Montana has no setback requirements
Meanwhile, Montana remains one of the few oil and gas states with no setback requirements. That means that there is no minimum distance between a wellhead and residences, schools and hospitals.
The map below shows setback requirements by state as of June 2013. Since the map was created Wyoming has extended its setback requirement to 500 feet, and Colorado has extended to 1000 feet in some circumstances.
Last summer the BOGC, at the urging of Northern Plains Resource Council and others, took up the issue of rulemaking for setbacks. After hearing from many residents regarding the need for minimum setbacks, the BOGC decided not to take up rulemaking, but to form a subcommittee to consider the issue.
The subcommittee has now done its work, and has recommended the following, according to minutes from the BOGC’s December meeting:
“The subcommittee made the recommendation to amend the permit process to require notification to owners of occupied residences within a ¼ mile of the proposed drilling location. Operators would be required to offer proof that notice was given to an occupied resident owner. This process would allow time to file a protest and appear at a hearing.”
You read that right — no minimum setbacks, just a required notification to tell you they’re about to put a well next to your kitchen window or the lunchroom at your local elementary school. According to board member Ronald Efta, “This rule would be similar to neighboring states.” That’s true only if you don’t consider North Dakota and Wyoming neighboring states.
Local governments need to protect themselves
It is important to understand that the BOGC is an arm of the oil and gas industry. The word “Conservation” in the organization’s name refers to conservation of oil and gas for profit, not of environmental resources.
There is no statewide agency in Montana that protects citizens from potential damage from oil and gas drilling. That is why it is critical for local residents and county governments enact regulations to protect their communities. That is why Carbon County residents have gone to the Montana Supreme Court to establish a special district, and why Stillwater County landowners have submitted petitions to set up a similar district.
There is no other way for Montana landowners to protect themselves.
What’s wrong with the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation
Action alert: Your voice is needed to put strong Montana setback rules in place
Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of petitions to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district
All briefs filed in Silvertip Zone case; Montana Supreme Court decision is next