Oil and gas operations might be pushed further away from homes, schools and other residential buildings under a rule change being considered by Wyoming regulators. 

But is unclear when and how that rule would be implemented. 

Mark Watson, the state's interim Oil and Gas supervisor, said Tuesday in a public meeting in Casper that his agency will prioritize an examination of the minimum distance required between energy development and residences. The current distance is 350 feet.

The gathering came amid increasing oil development in eastern Wyoming and pressure from landowners worried about the proximity of energy operations to their communities. Tuesday's meeting was initially billed as a chance to gather public input on proposed rule changes on setback requirements, flaring and the bonds operators pay on wells.

But it was short on specifics. Watson, who assumed his current role as interim supervisor two weeks ago when his predecessor Grant Black abruptly resigned, did not give a timeline for when any changes would be adopted. He did allude to the state's lengthy rule-making procedure, noting any changes would have to follow that procedure.

Flaring, the practice of burning off excess natural gas at oil wells, and bond requirements will still be studied, but only after a review of setback distances is complete, Watson told a crowd of around 50 people.

The change was made at the request of Gov. Matt Mead, who chairs the oil and gas commission, Watson said. He recalled a conversation he had with Mead and other members of the commission earlier in the week during an interview after the meeting.    

"I said, 'Where do you want me to go in the future, what do you want do you want me to look at?"' Watson said.  "The governor said, and the commission too they agreed, that 'We want you to look at setbacks first.' They thought it might be a little simpler, it's not going to be, and work their way up to flaring. Speculation on my part, but they thought take something that is not as hard to do."

Tuesday's meeting saw several landowners, as well as environmentalists, push for raising setbacks requirements. Energy operations near communities are devaluing property values and diminishing quality of life, they said in comments to the commission. Only one representative from the energy industry spoke and in that case the comment concerned drilling applications.

Maria Katherman, a Converse County resident, alluded to the abandoned coal-bed methane wells in the Powder River Basin, which were left-behind after the bust of the industry. The state is now tasked with plugging those wells. If the state had developed a strategy at the beginning of that boom it wouldn't be faced with the situation now, she said. 

Katherman encouraged the commission to develop rules that would prevent the current oil play from concluding in a similar fashion. 

"Citizens' perception of this commission is that you guys listen to oil and gas, which you should do. But you should also listen to the citizens because we are the ones that are gonna live here," Katherman said. "We're not making a dime by coming here tonight. We're not getting paid $80 an hour to attend this meeting. We're here because we hope there are some changes made in the way the commission operates." 

Watson rejected the notion the commission does not listen to citizens. He said regulators are duty bound to follow state law. And he pleaded with landowners to be patient, noting the commission is currently understaffed. A rule review will likely take time, he said.

In an interview, he declined to say whether the minimum distance between homes and energy operations should be raised, saying he needed to study the issue. But he did note that one proposal to set the minimum distance at one mile was too far.  

"I'd have to look at it closer, but to go from 350 feet to 5,280 feet, you know, that's quite a big jump," he said.

Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow


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