DEP's Main Advice to Lawmakers: Change Wellpad Setback Rule

The State Journal
10 July 2013
By Pam Kasey

With the three horizontal well studies mandated by the lawmakers now in, the state Department of Environmental Protection's main recommendation to them is to measure wellpad setbacks from their edges, not their centers.

The studies were called for in the Legislature's December 2011 Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act. All of the studies were conducted under contract by West Virginia University.

DEP's Office of Oil and Gas submitted the first of the three studies, on the safety of pits and impoundments, in March. The agency concluded from that study that any problems could be addressed internally by hiring more inspectors, by standardizing inspections and by improving training of inspectors and of the regulated community.

The second study, on noise, light, dust, and volatile organic compounds, went to the Legislature in May. The agency summarized that additional training on remediation measures, both in-house and for operators, was needed. It noted that the state's anti-idling law, aimed at reducing emissions from diesel engines, could be better enforced, and that bodies other than DEP are charged with enforcing it.

And the summary recommended the Legislature consider changing the reference point for wellpad setbacks. Currently, the centers of wellpads are to be set no closer than 625 feet from occupied dwellings; DEP suggested that, because wellpad geometries vary, the standard could better reference not the centers but the edges of wellpads.

The third study, on air quality, was submitted on June 28 and included data from the second study. DEP noted that many other state and federal studies of air quality at oil and gas extraction and processing facilities are under way, and concluded that no new law is needed at this time.

What happens next?

"There's been a suggestion that we take up examining these reports in an interim committee," said Delegate Tim Manchin, referring to the monthly meetings lawmakers held between regular winter sessions. Manchin, D-Marion, served as House co-chair of the Joint Select Committee on Marcellus Shale that formulated the 2011 legislation.

Knowing how discussions went in 2011 on wellpad setbacks, Manchin said he thought a hard-and-fast increase of the setback distance "would be difficult."

The concern, he said, was "sterilizing" minerals — making them inaccessible.

What might be more achievable, he said, is a greater setback distance with some flexibility where operators commit to abatement measures.

WVU professor Michael McCawley, who oversaw the air quality study, said a health-based proposal for wellpad setbacks would require three years of data from wellpads in a wide variety of settings.

Although the three studies the Legislature asked for are in, Manchin said his review of the report summaries indicated to him that some issues didn't get addressed quite the way lawmakers hoped for.

"I think there's still a little more to be done," he said.