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Regulators are setting rules about how far away to keep hydraulic fracturing wells from homes, schools, hospitals and natural resources such as rivers. But there’s little to guide their decision-making.
By Gabe Rivin
How far is far enough?
That’s the question North Carolina regulators are trying to answer as they continue to develop minimum required distances between natural gas wells and other, potentially vulnerable sites, such as schools and hospitals.
On Jan. 31, regulators gave preliminary approval to a set of rules governing these distances.
But environmentalists are infuriated. The rules, they say, are designed solely to attract industry, not to protect public health.
Meanwhile, regulators say that North Carolina’s rules will be protective enough while still allowing for natural gas development in the state.
The answer is less than clear, and presents a stark truth: No one can say with much certainty what constitutes a safe buffer, or “setback,” for gas wells, even as research has begun to warn that living near gas wells may pose a risk to public health.
The difference between 500 and 650 feet
Environmentalists’ derision landed like a well-rehearsed line in the ongoing debate about hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking), the process by which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressures in order to recover oil and natural gas from shale formations.
“Those of us who really take a public health perspective know that 150 [extra] feet is not enough to significantly improve the public health prospects for exposure to folks, to everything from noise to toxic emissions to potential impacts on wells,” said Hope Taylor, the executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “So it seemed like a laughable number to us.”
Earlier in the Jan. 31 meeting, the Mining and Energy Commission (MEC), which is writing North Carolina’s fracking regulations, gave preliminary approval to a set of rules that govern setbacks.
A draft of the rule had originated in the commission’s Environmental Standards Committee and would have required at least 500 feet between natural gas wells and homes, hospitals, schools and drinking-water wells. Setback requirements were shorter for streams and public roads.
As in the approved rule, drillers could have petitioned the commission to reduce or waive some of the requirements so long as they agreed to additional environmental safeguards.
A coalition of environmentalists, including Taylor’s group, demanded an increase in these distances.
“Simply establishing regulations that avoid being a ‘burden’ for industry, or modeling them on other states’ often long-existing regulations, is inadequate to protect North Carolina’s residents, whether or not they are the potential beneficiaries of revenues from gas extraction,” they wrote in a letter to MEC commissioners (see letter, below).
The groups sent the letter the day before the MEC vote on the rule in an apparent effort to sway commissioners.
For one commissioner, the letter had an effect.
George Howard chairs the committee that drafted the rule, and in the Jan. 31 debate on the rule he recommended an increase in each of the setback requirements. The 500-foot requirements, he said, should be increased to 650 feet. Lakes and streams should be set back 200 feet, he said, not the 100 feet required by the earlier draft of the rule.
The commission approved Howard’s recommendations and gave the rule a preliminary nod of approval. The rule will pass through several more stages of debate, including a period of public comment, before the commission gives a final vote of approval. (The state cannot issue drilling permits until the General Assembly has approved of the commission’s entire suite of drilling rules.)
But the question remains: Is the rule, in its current form, stringent enough to protect public health? Is 650 feet far enough away from nursing homes and schools?
A lack of research
“Our decision-making on Friday was not based on science in any form and fashion,” said Ray Covington about the setbacks rule, in an admission that was as earnest as it was surprising. “If you look at rule sets across the nation, no one can come up with scientific reasons for the setbacks.
“You just want to have safe distances, and quite honestly, with the right precautions in place, those distances would be radically closer than what we recommended out of the Mining and Energy Commission.”
Covington is the vice chair of the full MEC, as well as vice chair of the committee that drafted the rule. He said that when developing the setback rule, commissioners studied the requirements of 34 other states that regulate oil and gas. He said North Carolina is “clearly in the upper range of the setback recommendations across the country.”
But Covington pointed to a grimmer, mostly ignored facet of the debate.
“From a scientific aspect, there’s very little information out there tied to setback rules across the nation,” he said.
Covington is not alone in this assertion.
Taylor agreed that the scientific evidence for setbacks is limited. “There is a shortage of data,” she admitted.
Like Taylor’s group, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, a farmer-advocacy group, has pushed for longer setbacks. Yet, James Robinson, a policy researcher for the group, said, “None of us really know” whether a 500-foot setback is more protective of public health than a 1,000-foot setback.
“There’s not really good data on the health impact of some of these things,” he said. “Policy on this is sometimes made by just looking at what other states have done, or by looking at what the minimum is that we need to do to get the industry to come in. None of those things tell you how your decision is going to impact health.”
Some states have required minimal setbacks for drillers. This can encourage natural gas and oil development. To understand why, imagine a gas well in the center of a suburb, with a radius extending from its center. With a 1,500-foot required setback, the radius – 1,500 feet in all directions – would bump into any number of homes, thereby preventing drilling.
Such a setback requirement would serve as a de facto ban on drilling, which, according to some observers, is exactly what the Dallas, Texas, city council recently enacted.
A wide setback requirement might be equally restrictive in Lee County, according to Grady McCallie, policy director at the N.C. Conservation Network. Lee is one of several counties in North Carolina that is expected to have economical, gas-bearing shale.
A risk for pregnant women?
The setback rulemaking underscores a larger challenge that MEC commissioners have faced. Oil and gas drilling has boomed across the U.S., prompted in part by new fracking techniques and innovations in horizontal drilling.
This boom, however, has been rapid, and environmental regulators and researchers have struggled to keep pace with the developing technology.
Regulators in North Carolina and other states have had to develop fracking rules while walking a tightrope. In the case of setbacks, regulators do not want to be too restrictive, otherwise drillers – and their much-vaunted jobs – may be unable to develop wells. At the same time, regulators must write rules with potentially far-reaching public-health effects, and they must do so with imperfect data.
Yet scientists are picking up the pace of research.
One recent study raised concerns about the health effects of living near drilling operations. The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found an association between children’s birth defects and pregnant women’s proximities to dense numbers of gas and oil wells.
The study looked at records from about 125,000 births in rural Colorado, an area in which drilling has rapidly expanded in the last 14 years. The birth records spanned 1996 to 2009; this allowed the researchers to track birth records alongside the boom in natural gas production.
Children had a 30 percent greater prevalence of congenital heart defects if their mothers lived within a mile of 125 or more wells, according to the study. Neural tube defects rose twofold for children whose mothers lived near the same density of wells.
According to the researchers, benzene exposure may be the reason for the increase. Natural gas wells emit benzene, a known carcinogen, following the completion of the fracking process, according to the study.
The researchers say that other air pollutants produced by diesel burning, such as nitrogen dioxide or sulfur dioxide, may also be a problem for fetuses. Large numbers of diesel-powered trucks pass through drilling sites and diesel power generators are used on site.
The researchers, however, were cautious when describing their findings.
“Our study is indicating the potential for these birth defects with proximity to natural gas wells,” said Lisa McKenzie, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health and lead author on the study. “However, it doesn’t prove that these birth defects would happen if a woman lived near a natural gas well.”
McKenzie acknowledged that the researchers’ data was inherently limited, since it was retrospective. The records did not indicate, for example, whether the pregnant women lived at their houses throughout their entire term of pregnancy. Nor did the data confirm whether gas wells were active.
She said that, lacking this information, the researchers aren’t sure whether their results were skewed.
Asked how policy makers should interpret her findings, McKenzie struck another note of caution.
“We really feel like it’s important to do more studies that could inform these decisions,” she said.
Environmentalists’ letter sent to the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, Jan 30, 2014 (PDF)