Setback Distances: The Regulations We Need

Shale gas development is a threat to public health, one that increases with closer proximity to shale gas facilities.

The distances between shale gas facilities and structures or buildings (like homes and schools) are referred to as “setback distances.” In the 2020 Grand Jury Report investigating shale gas development, released by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, setback distances are also referred to as “no-drill zones.”


Photo courtesy of Kelly Finan

The threat is real

Supported by data collected and research completed by the SWPA Environmental Health Project (EHP), the Grand Jury Report presented clear evidence that shale gas development is a direct threat to public health, and associated health impacts are significantly increased nearer shale gas facilities.

Echoing the report, a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that heart failure patients who live near shale gas development activity are more likely to be hospitalized than those who live further away. The study cites increased noise, air pollution, and traffic associated with gas sites as the culprits of higher levels of heart patient hospitalizations. This is just one of many studies linking proximity to shale sites with health symptoms.

Current regulations

In Pennsylvania, current setback distances are based on types of shale gas facilities.

500 feet from well pads to buildings like homes or schools
That’s about half a city block.

750 feet from compressor stations and processing plants
That’s still less than a city block.

As little as 300 feet from well pads in residential districts if 500-feet restrictions cannot be met
That’s the length of one football field.

Current setback distances were created by policymakers more than a decade ago. These distances are numbers that policymakers agreed upon before anyone knew the full health implications of the industry. However, based on similar industries and the kinds of chemicals used in the shale gas process, greater setbacks distances would have been warranted even then.

At these distances, people who live or work — and children who go to school — nearby are at significant risk of developing health symptoms, including headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, asthma, and more. Along with these physical health impacts are associated psychological ones, including those caused by noise and light pollution. The intensity of these health issues, as well as their risks of occurring, can be reduced by increasing minimum setback distances.

EHP’s evidence-based recommendations

Where shale gas development activity exists, public safety cannot be guaranteed. With that said, by revising and enforcing setback regulations to EHP’s recommended distances, people who live near shale gas operations could be less exposed to dangerous associated emissions — 20 to 40 times less exposed, according to inventory from the PA Department of Environmental Protection and EHP’s air exposure model.

EHP’s recommendations include:

At least 3,281 feet (1 km or 0.6 miles) between smaller shale gas facilities, such as well pads or smaller compressor stations, and homes

6,600 feet between gas processing plants or large emitters and homes

6,600 feet between any shale gas facility and schools, daycares, hospitals, nursing homes, and other buildings that house vulnerable populations

Toxic emissions exposure high enough to cause respiratory, reproductive, neurologic, and other health effects are still prevalent at greater distances than these recommended setbacks, but the greater the distance, the greater the risk reduction.

Steps in the right direction

In December 2020, the Boulder County Board of Commissioners of Boulder, Colorado — an area that received an F-grade in air quality in 2020 from the American Lung Association — unanimously voted to increase setback distances, effectively passing the strictest shale gas development regulations in the state of Colorado. Though the new regulations offer a range of acceptable setback distances, no facilities may be sited less than 2,000 feet from an occupied building.

Other states and communities are beginning to follow in Boulder County’s footsteps with further investigation into shale gas development and the health of those who live on the front lines.

Contact your local government representatives to demand greater setback distances

COVID-19 forced governments to act. The same sense of urgency needs to be applied to tackling air pollution, a health problem with a clear and actionable solution. 

For more information, please contact EHP at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org

The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation, and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.

Resources

Report 1 of the Forty-Third Statewide Investigating Grand Jury Report 

EHP’s Public Statement on the Grand Jury Report

EHP Setback Distance Infographic

EHP’s Public Policy Position Statement on Setback Distances

The Problem of Setback Distance for Unconventional Oil & Gas Development: An analysis of expert opinions
 

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