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Gas Well Setbacks in Focus Again

Two state senators plan to introduce legislation that would increase the required setback distances between gas wells and buildings.

Democratic Sens. Steven Santasiero and Carolyn Comitta, who is the minority chair of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, announced their intent by recently circulating a co-sponsorship memorandum to their colleagues, The legislation would increase the minimum distance between a building and a well pad to 2,500 feet from the current 500 feet and the distance between a public water source and a well pad to 5,000 feet.

The current distances were set in Act 13, which was passed by the legislature in 2012 to regulate unconventional gas well development in Pennsylvania at a time when it was rapidly expanding.

However, a number of studies have linked health issues, including increased asthma, to the proximity of gas wells and there have been calls to increase the separation between residential areas and wells.

“A 2016 study led by health researchers at the University of Pittsburgh examined the adequacy of unconventional natural gas drilling setbacks in the three largest and most heavily drilled natural gas plays in the U.S. The study looked at air pollution, blowouts and evacuations, and thermal modeling and found that “(C)urrent natural gas well setbacks in…the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania…cannot be considered sufficient in all cases to protect public health and safety,” the co-sponsorship memo states.

A 2020 statewide grand jury report that found state agencies failed to protect public health in their oversight of the natural gas industry made a number of recommendations for improvements, including expanding no-drill zones from the present 500 feet to 2,500 feet.

Natural gas organizations have opposed efforts to increase the setback zones, saying it would impact the industry and deprive landowners of their property rights and royalty income.

The same legislation was introduced during the last legislative session but did not come up for a vote on the Senate floor.

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