The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is set to finalize the state’s updated setback rules tomorrow, April 14th. The proposed rule suggests an increase of only 150 feet from the current 350-foot requirement. In the Casper Star-Tribune on Sunday, April 12, Environmental Quality Advocate Amber Wilson outlined a strong argument for the state to increase the setback distance beyond the proposed 500 feet and to include more specific best practices to protect public health and safety.
As the state finalizes new setback rules, which will help regulate how closely oil and gas development can occur to homes, I want to address some assertions made in a recent op-ed by John Robitaille of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. In particular, I would like to address the argument that a larger setback than the proposed 150-foot increase would create unmanageable problems for landowners and harm an important industry that supports our state economy.
First, industry representatives have often said that they want to ensure the safety of our communities. We believe them. But history tells us that not all operators approach development with the same level of care, and because of this, reasonable rules are necessary to ensure that all developers are accountable to that promise. That’s why we believe the state should do better than the currently proposed 150-foot increase to the existing setback rule.
We all benefit from oil and gas development, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive as a community to achieve better practices. I was born and raised in southwest Wyoming and graduated from the University of Wyoming. I’m grateful for the economic benefits oil and gas development brings to our state, but I also recognize we can be grateful and still ask for common sense approaches to developing oil and gas that protect people as much as they do access to the resource.
The state’s current 350-foot setback rule was established when well pads were much smaller and the equipment and materials that occupied them, less invasive. We have all seen today’s oil and gas fields, with 10- and sometimes even 20-acre well pads, where full-scale industrial operations are taking place, and where 10 or 20 wells can be drilled from the same pad. The current proposal for setbacks from homes, which industry and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming support, is 500 feet. And that’s measured from the wellhead(s), not the edge of the well pad.
Mr. Robitaille suggested that a setback requirement larger than 500 feet would remove flexibility, impose upon landowner rights, and end opportunities for negotiation between landowners and drillers. This is simply not true. Both the current and proposed rules state that the setback distance can be “increased or decreased for good cause.” We support good cause variances that allow flexibility and acknowledge landowner rights and operator’s mineral rights. These variances open the door for negotiation between the parties.
An even more elegant and common sense solution, from our perspective, would call for reduced flaring and improved leak detection and repair inspections on wells that are drilled within a quarter mile of residences and workplaces. This would address waste, as well as public health and safety concerns.
On that note, another misleading statement was that flaring is necessary for the protection of onsite employees. This is only part of the story. The kind of flaring that is done during drilling or during an emergency is indeed necessary and important as it protects workers and anybody else nearby. But there is another kind of flaring — the long-term kind — that the Wyoming Outdoor Council would like to see reduced. Flaring for safety should not be confused with wasteful flaring that is done for expediency’s sake. After a well is drilled and completed and is in production, companies can and should be required to capture natural gas, and either use that valuable resource on-site for power or send it to market. Companies should not be allowed to waste billions of cubic feet of our nation’s natural gas over the course of months and years while an oil well is in production—simply so these companies can defer the hassle of planning ahead, paying severance taxes, and conserving an important, non-renewable resource.
We are all part of a tight-knit community in this state. It’s important that we treat each other as the neighbors that we are. This involves respect, both for landowner and mineral rights, clean air and water, a safe backyard playground and a productive hay field. Let’s be the state we know we can be: one that respects economic benefits while using common sense to guide how close a well pad can be to our homes. Good fences make good neighbors; so do good setbacks.