Renewing the Call for Increased Setback Distances
In Pennsylvania, a critical call to action echoes through communities impacted by shale gas development: increased distance between infrastructure and the places where people live, work, play, learn, heal, and worship is needed now. It is a plea for policymakers to change course, backed by the weight of mounting evidence and supported by the recently released results of the long awaited PA Health and Environment studies. The health and well-being of communities on the shale play depend on swift action.
Shale gas development (SGD), sometimes called fracking, produces significant emissions at every stage of the process through planned releases and accidental leaks. Emissions are released from well pads, pipelines, condensate tanks, compressor and metering stations, processing plants, and other infrastructure. The emissions from these facilities contain dangerous chemicals, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (like benzene and toluene), nitrogen oxides (NOX), radon gas, and many others. These harmful emissions can then pollute air, water, and soil in surrounding areas.
In 2019, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration allocated $3 million to the studies, taking action after months of impassioned pleas by the families of childhood cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state. In 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) contracted with the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health to conduct three observational epidemiological studies focusing on the role of shale gas development in asthma, childhood cancers, and birth outcomes. The studies cover the entirety of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Region, including Allegheny County, Armstrong County, Beaver County, Butler County, Fayette County, Greene County, Washington County, and Westmoreland County.
The results of these studies, released in August 2023, concur with an ever growing body of research suggesting shale gas development poses a serious risk to public health, and this risk becomes more pronounced as one gets closer to shale gas facilities.
The spaces between shale gas facilities and structures like homes and schools are known as “setback distances.” In a 2020 Grand Jury Report led by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, these setback distances are also referred to as "no-drill zones." A collaborative effort of several environmental organizations advocating for increased distance uses the term “protective buffers.”
Distance and Health Impacts
Data shows that there are over 12,000 schools and daycares across the U.S. within half a mile of an active oil and gas well. Children in daycare centers or schools near SGD may be exposed to the toxic pollutants these facilities release through contamination in the nearby air, water, or soil. Children can be exposed to contaminants while being outside during recess or gym class, or when commuting to and from school. Contaminants can also enter buildings through open doors, windows, and ventilation systems and can be carried inside on clothing and shoes.
Nearly 18 million individuals live within one mile of an active oil and gas well in the U.S. A significant number of people spend every hour of the day in proximity to shale gas wells.
The PA Health and Environment Study found that patients with asthma were 4-5 times more likely to have an asthma attack if they lived within 10 miles of a shale gas well in production. Children living within a half mile of a shale gas well had a higher chance of developing cancer when all types of cancer were grouped together. The chances of a child developing lymphoma were 5-7 fold greater when living within one-mile of a shale gas well. Data gathered in this study suggests that the highest risk was for those living closest and with the highest well density of shale gas activity nearby.
The standards currently regulating oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania, called Act 13, were signed into law by Governor Tom Corbett in 2012. Policymakers established the setback distance from shale gas well pads to buildings like homes or schools at 500 feet and included a waiver allowing property owners to provide signed consent to place a well pad even closer. The setback distance from compressor stations and processing plants was set at 750 feet. These distances were somewhat arbitrary, implemented with an incomplete understanding of the health implications of the industry activities. However, given insights from similar industries and the chemicals used in shale gas processes, greater setback distances would have been justified even back then. Learn more about the history of oil and gas regulations in Pennsylvania in EHP’s white paper: Pennsylvania's Shale Gas Boom: How Policy Decisions Failed to Protect Public Health and What We Can Do to Correct It.
At the current distance, individuals who reside, work, or study nearby shale gas infrastructure report health issues such as headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and asthma. There are also associated psychological impacts, including those stemming from noise and light pollution. Increasing the minimum setback distances can mitigate the severity and likelihood of these health problems.
As research-based evidence increased in the years since Pennsylvania’s last significant regulatory changes, other states have taken action to implement setback distances that better reflect the need to protect public health. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) adopted a 2,000 foot setback rule in 2020 to better protect homes and schools. COGCC offers an exception if the development demonstrates practices that are “substantially equivalent” to the protections offered by the full setback distance. In late 2022, California passed Senate Bill 1137 banning new permits for oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, clinics and other sensitive sites. The law also sought to tighten restrictions on existing wells within the setback area. Days after the passage of the bill, the oil industry filed to put the new legislation to a ballot referendum. SB 1137 has been placed on hold pending the outcome of the referendum which will go to the voters in November 2024.
EHP's Evidence-Based Recommendations
In areas with active shale gas development, sufficient public health protections cannot be guaranteed. Nevertheless, by revising and enforcing setback regulations in line with EHP's recommended distances, residents near shale gas operations could be less exposed to hazardous emissions. EHP recommends:
A minimum of 3,300 feet (approximately 1 kilometer or 0.6 miles) between smaller shale gas facilities like well pads and homes.
A distance of 6,600 feet (just over 1 kilometer or 1.25 miles) between gas processing plants or compressor stations and homes.
A distance of 6,600 feet between any shale gas facility and places like schools, daycares, hospitals, nursing homes, and buildings housing vulnerable populations.
Additionally, the industry should not be allowed exemptions or waivers to these distances for any reason.
While respiratory, reproductive, neurologic, and other health effects are experienced by those living beyond these suggested setbacks, the greater the distance, the more the risk is reduced.
To advocate for more extensive statewide setback distances, it's important to contact your elected representatives. Visit Protective Buffers PA for steps you can take today to advocate for increased setbacks in Pennsylvania.