The rapid expansion of unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania was the catalyst for new laws as well as changes to existing laws to protect the public. One of the most notable was Act 13 of 2012 that, among other things, increased the setback distance for wells to 500 feet from 200 feet from homes or water supplies, unless agreed to be the owner. A recently published research paper has found that Act 13’s setback requirements are largely ineffective, and provides some explanation for why that is the case.
The article, titled “The effect of Pennsylvania’s 500 ft. surface setback regulation on siting unconventional natural gas wells near buildings: An interrupted time-series analysis” and published in the journal Energy Policy, is a cumulative effort by five researchers from several organizations. The stated purpose of the article is to evaluate the effectiveness of Act 13’s setback policy.
Act 13, or the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, is a comprehensive collection of policies that regulate the oil and gas industry within the state. Of the numerous policies set under Act 13 is the increased setback requirement for well placement. The purpose of the increased distance is to prevent harm to the public from adverse health effects or due an emergency at the wellhead.
Research done by the authors of the study argue that the policy is largely ineffective, stating that their results “show that Act 13 did not significantly alter how wells were sited in relation to nearby buildings”. In fact, their research shows that as many one in 13.7 unconventional natural gas well is located within 500 feet of a “school, church, drinking water supply, wellhead protection area, or an occupied well”.
The cause of this, according to the study, is the various exemptions to the setback requirements that drillers can take advantage of. For example, wells drilled prior to Act 13’s passage are ‘grandfathered’ into the previous 200-foot regulation, exempting them from the 500-foot rule. There are two additional mechanisms that can be used to receive exemption: the owner of the land on which the well sits may give written permission to drill within the setback zone, and; the driller can submit a “Request for Variance from Distance Restriction” form to the Department of Environmental Protection “detailing additional terms and conditions to be in place to ensure safety and protections of persons and property”.
The study highlights that exemptions to policy, and their effect on the overall policy, are often overlooked in the policymaking process. It also suggests that regulators should consider narrowing exemptions, ensuring fully informed consent by property owners, and employ additional mitigation measures, such as emissions controls, to ensure that public health and safety is protected. Initiatives have sprung up in several states to increase the setback distances from schools and wells, but that seems unlikely to occur in Pennsylvania. Landowners who are approached to give consent to waive the current setback should fully inform themselves before giving permission.