Drilling Setbacks

Frank and Terry Henderson's cattle graze in the shadow of a gas drilling rig April 2, 2014 in Converse County. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Tuesday voted to increase the minimum distance between drilling rigs and residences from 350 feet to 500 feet. 

Dan Cepeda | Star-Tribune

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved a measure Tuesday to increase the buffer between homes and drilling operations to 500 feet. 

The rule, which was passed unanimously and without debate, requires companies working within 1,000 feet of a home to provide notice to surface owners and submit mitigation plans aimed at reducing dust, light, noise and traffic from operations at well sites.  

Its passage ends months of debate over drilling rigs' proximity to homes. The current setback is 350 feet, a distance some landowners maintained posed health risks and devalued home prices. They advocated for a quarter-mile buffer.  Oil companies and mineral owners countered, saying access to oil reservoirs was essential for continued development in Wyoming. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Matt Mead cast the measure as a compromise.

"I know some of the environmental organizations wanted more. Some of the industry folks wanted less," Mead said in an interview. "But I think it is an improvement. It’s an improvement, one, in terms of distance, but, two, it's an improvement in terms of notification."

Wyoming has never before required oil companies notify surface owners, who frequently do not own the minerals beneath their land, of nearby energy development. Under the rule, companies working within 1,000 feet of a home will give homeowners at least 30-days notice before starting construction of a well pad. 

That represented a change from the initial draft, which required 180-days notice prior to the drilling of a well. Oil and Gas Supervisor Mark Watson said the change was made in recognition of the fact that work at a well site begins before drilling starts. 

Neither wells nor production facilities such as tanks will be allowed within 500 feet of a home. The commission's draft originally measured the distance from the center of the wellhead. 

The changes won plaudits from industry. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming called 500 feet a "workable" distance.

"PAW members will incorporate these new requirements into their individual processes and development plans, with the continued belief that good one-on-one communication with the owners of occupied structures and the use of site-specific mitigation measures will provide the best outcomes," the association said. 

Landowners, meanwhile, expressed disappointment in the final outcome. The Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition said 500 feet failed to recognize the potential health and safety risks posted by drilling near homes. The group had called for a quarter-mile buffer. 

"Wyoming had the chance to become a national leader in its recognition of the need to protect the health and safety of residents living near oil and gas development, while promoting the rational development of its oil and gas resources, but came up short with its decision today," the group's president, Alex Bowler, said in a statement. 

Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow


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