Setback rules Oil and Gas Commission hears testimony on setbacksWritten by Saige Albert
Casper – With widespread public comment on the issue, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC) heard from the public on March 9 regarding setback rule changes at the WOGCC building in Casper.
The rule proposes to change the current setback, or the distance that drilling equipment and associated production facilities must be from an occupied structure, which has sparked controversy across the state.
“The rule does several things,” said WOGCC Supervisor Mark Watson. “First, we defined occupied structure as a building that was specifically constructed and approved for human occupancy, such as a residence, school, office or hospital.”
The setback distance was also changed, and Watson mentioned that if a well is within 1,000 feet of an existing occupied structure, there are additional requirements.
“Under part two, the Supervisor is provided with consideration of how the operator provides communication and comments between the operator and landowner,” Watson noted. “I also have the right to waive these requirements if the landowners approve the waiver in writing.”
In providing their comments, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) detailed several studies directly related to the setback requirements.
“The proposed rule respects Wyoming tradition of working with landowners to achieve a mutually agreeable solution,” said John Robitaille of PAW. “We specifically support the setback of 500 feet, with the variance, and we support engaging with developing active participation.”
Increasing the setback distance beyond 500 feet, PAW noted, would dramatically decrease access to resources, particularly in Laramie County, where setback distances are hotly debated.
Melanie Peterson, a geologist, noted that under the current setback of 350 feet, the percentage of land available for well pads is 81.6 percent.
“If we switch that to 500 feet, the percent availability diminishes to 70.8 percent,” she continued. “If we use a setback of 2,640 feet, the percent of land available diminishes to two percent.”
“There is an expectation and mechanism for productive communication for operators and landowners where mitigation measures can be tailored to site-specific locations,” PAW added.
Wyoming’s agriculture groups also commented on the setback rule during the meeting and through written comment.
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna mentioned, “This is about more than just a number. There is no single setback distance that is ideal for the interests of both parties in every instance. However, the proposed 500-foot standard represents a norm that is more reasonable than the current 350-foot setback.”
The rule also allows for deviations from the 500 feet in the event of an agreement by all parties involved.
Magagna said, “The success of the proposed rule will rest upon the commitment of the Supervisor and the Commission to fair consideration of requests by either landowners or operators for a variance.”
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) also expressed support of the changes, particularly in light of the variance language in the rule.
“We are in support of the proposed setback increase from 350 feet to 500 feet as an acceptable solution,” RMFU Lobbyist and Government Affairs Representative Scott Zimmerman said. “We note the mineral estate is dominant over the surface estate and could visualize circumstances whereby a mineral owner could be prevented from accessing his mineral interest if setback distances are expanded greatly.”
Zimmerman added positively, “We also note the language of issuance of a ‘variance,’ which can increase or decrease the setback distance in special situations.”
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association (WCCA) also agreed that 500 feet was a reasonable solution, noting, “The proposed rule change covers all lands in Wyoming, but clearly is a response to the private lands oil and gas activity that has begun to play a larger role in our counties without much federal land. These new activities requires us to take a careful look at the balance of development and resident health and safety.”
“We believe that increasing the setback to 500 feet is a reasonable approach and particularly appreciate the flexibility granted to the Supervisor to grant a variance in either direction for good cause,” WCCA President Richard Ladwig added.
Wyoming Farm Bureau (WyFB) took a more strong stance, noting that membership is supportive of setback increases if, “the rule remains flexible enough to not impede current ranching/farming practices. We would not recommend increasing the minimum required distance.”
Further, WyFB’s Holly Kennedy urged the WOGCC to consider the negative impacts that Colorado has seen in raising their setback.
While many groups supported the setback change, Powder River Basin Resource Council stood with some concerns.
“Our organization’s members deeply believe that Wyoming must significantly increase the setback distance between oil and gas wells and places where people live and work,” PRBRC’s Staff Attorney Shannon Anderson said. “The choice is ours – Wyoming can be a leader and set a new national standard or we can be a source of growing controversy and problems in communities across the state.”
PRBRC cited concerns about health and human safety, as well as quality of living and other property impacts, advocating for a one-quarter mile setback.
“Landowners near or adjacent to these facilities who do not own the mineral estate or the property where the well is proposed to be drilled are virtually powerless and have no effective say in the location of these facilities,” Anderson continued.
The impacts to homeowners, such as noise and light pollution, are significant.
“We advocate for a greater setback,” Anderson finished. “We also believe the Commission requirements to balance oil and gas development with the protection of health and safety requires a greater setback than 500 feet from these multi-well industrial sites.”
The WOGCC will continue to deliberate the setbacks.