- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted Tuesday to recommend an increase to the minimum allowable distance between oil and gas drilling rigs and dwellings.

The commission, which includes Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, voted Tuesday to propose a new rule that would extend the setback distance between homes and oil and gas wells from the current 350 feet up to 500 feet. The staff of the commission had recommended the 500-foot setback.

The public has an opportunity to comment through next January before the commission votes on the proposal early next year.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group, issued a statement critical of the proposal, saying it still offers insufficient protection to homeowners. The group had asked the commission to peg the minimum setback at a quarter-mile, saying drill rigs are noisy and hazardous to health.

Jill Morrison, spokeswoman for the council, said Tuesday she’s concerned the commission didn’t consider the full effect of modern drilling operations on neighboring landowners.

“These are very large well pads with anywhere from a dozen up to 30 or 40 wells on one pad,” Morrison said. “These are a different kind of drilling, and it goes on for months if not years if you have multiple wells on one pad. We don’t believe the commission has really carefully considered how this can and will impact homeowners and we hope that they will reconsider and look at all the evidence that’s been put in front of them.”

Morrison said her group submitted a number of exhibits to the commission showing how drilling can harm the health and safety of neighboring landowners as well as adversely affect their property values and homeowners’ insurance coverage.

“Some of the homeowners in the Cheyenne area have had their insurance portion cancelled if there’s nearby oil and gas drilling and fracking operations,” Morrison said. “They don’t cover any impacts related to your property from those operations.”

Tom Kropatsch, deputy oil and gas supervisor, emphasized in an interview after the commission vote that the proposed rule isn’t yet in effect. He said anyone may still submit comments on the proposal and the commission has the authority to evaluate those.

“Five hundred feet isn’t set in stone here because that would be decided by the final vote that is taken after the comment period and the comments are evaluated and everything,” Kropatsch said.

Michelle Panos, spokeswoman for Mead, said Tuesday the governor was travelling and not available for comment on his vote. Mead is set to attend a meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association in Florida this week.

John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said his group had wanted the setback distance to remain at 350 feet. He said it would analyze how extending the setback to 500 feet would affect drilling operations and decide how to respond as the rulemaking process proceeds.

Robitaille emphasized that the proposed rule would also impose a new requirement on operators to inform the owners of occupied structures within 1000 feet of their operations about specific operating plans and provide a mitigation plan for anticipated impacts.

“Historically, operators have worked with landowners who are on lease only,” Robitaille stated. “This proposed rule would require operators to expand into areas off lease to better inform and communicate. We believe this is a good first step to better inform the public, and believe mitigation measures taken will be well thought out and respectful for every situation.”

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