As more peer- reviewed health studies are completed around unconventional gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing across the United States, more mothers, doctors, and local citizens are calling for greater setbacks from these industrial- grade activities that are used to drill and frac Marcellus Shale oil and gas wells. In Pennsylvania, 500 feet (152 meters) is the current setback requirement, which is far too close for those who end up, what I will call ‘danger close,’ borrowing an old artillery term for individuals who are too close to where an exploding shell will land.
Major annoyances from shale gas production can include heavy diesel truck traffic 24 hours a day- 7 days a week, bright lights, clanging and banging noises, vibrations that will make water in a glass quiver, clouds of very fine dust from frac sand, and toxic vapors and odors. Research has shown the drilling phase can be as toxic as the fracking phase of unconventional gas well production, with air pollution episodic in nature, and both phases lasting several weeks. Industrial activity can last much longer, if a producer returns several times to an existing well pad, to drill additional wells. Since the latest shale gas wells have longer well laterals, with some being 3 to 4 miles (5 to 6 kilometers) in length, additional ‘frac stages’ require the use of millions of gallons more liquids, and truckloads of frac sand, which is strip- mined in parts of Wisconsin, causing those residents grief.
If gas well setbacks are doubled to 1,000 feet, or greatly increased to a much safer 2,500 feet (762 meters) which is nearly one- half mile, and drilling is confined to Industrial zones only, drillers complain that it leaves them too few locations for drilling and fracking to take place. Tighter restrictions often lead to them using the “taking” argument, to where a landowner who favors drilling is having his opportunity to produce oil and gas from his or her mineral rights, taken away. And after all, there is the age old Pennsylvania thinking and rule of thumb that “mineral rights trump surface rights.”
As drillers rolled into Pennsylvania from places like Texas and Oklahoma, nearly 20 years ago, most local land owners, mineral rights owners and legislators were unaware of the ‘big fracking picture.’ My friend Ron was led to believe that the well pads would be the size of a 2 car garage, conventional vertical drilling would be used (no fracking was mentioned), and that he would be able to tap into free gas from his wells for the new house he planned to build. None of those things became reality for Ron, and to ‘add insult to injury’ as the saying goes, landmen were leasing acreage in Washington County back then, for as little as $5 to $10 per acre, with at least one state employee, skimming a percentage the royalties for himself, since he was being so ‘helpful.’ Imagine a state employee, in a position of power and trust, working on the side to enrich himself.
But most people were ‘wet behind the ears‘ and didn’t realize that same acreage might later lease for anywhere from $1,500 to $6,000 an acre in upfront ‘bonus’ money, with a much higher royalty percentage paid on the gas produced over time. If you compare oil and gas landmen, who signed multi- million dollar deals in some cases, with Pennsylvania real estate agents who are strictly licensed and regulated, landmen have had pretty much ‘free rein.’ No sort of any state licensing that I know of to this date! And then you have those people who sign an oil and gas lease without legal representation, or ignore important modifications to the fine print, setting themselves up for later surprises and major disappointments.
In these early years, of Pennsylvania being exploited for her fossil fuels in this latest chapter, not many people are talking about how much forest is being lost to drilling, compressor stations and processing plants, during a time when everyone has gained a new, alarming understanding of how all this contributes to climate change. Cutting down trees instead of planting them.
Altering huge swaths of land, while adding to the siltation of streams and the pollution of small streams with repeated spills and fish kills. Chipping away at the trees that make up ‘Penn’s Woods’ on a daily basis, with well pads dotting our region like pockmarks and craters from B52 carpet bombing. And with the huge volumes of radioactive waste being brought up to the surface, some with a 1,600 year half- life, what sort of legacy are we leaving future generations?
Yet the majority party in Harrisburg is more interested in additional drilling with less regulation, and building out the petrochemical industry further, than they are in growing greener. Sad. Pitiful is a more accurate word.
One of the first local instances, where we saw setbacks become a major issue, was next to Trax Farm in Union Township, Washington County, Pa. The first wells on that well pad were drilled by Chesapeake Energy, but the lease was later ‘flipped’ to EQT. As they were planning to drill additional wells on that well pad, about 600 to 1,000 feet from a group of homes on Cardox Road, they offered those homeowners $50,000 to sign a release on their gas production activities. In other words, here’s a big chunk of money for you, but you can never come back on us in the future. Most of them accepted the money, while a couple of them refused, and one couple even sold their house quickly, and moved away. I’ve heard of similar money (what I will call an ‘aggravation fee’) being paid to others close to well pads and gas production activities, but it’s usually more like $2,000 to $3,000, instead of 50 Grand. But let’s face facts, “money talks,” whether it’s related to these aggravation fees, or signing a gas lease.
The second case of setbacks relates to a mobile home park in Economy Borough, where my friend Steve learned that the state’s 500 foot setback rule, means 500 feet from the nearest well head, not the edge of the gravel drilling pad. These photos show how much closer that can bring drilling and fracking activities to someone’s home:
And finally, probably the biggest eye- opener to date, is this new well pad in Amwell Township, just south of ‘Little Washington’ Pennsylvania. Ironically perhaps, it’s in the same township where the book “Amity and Prosperity” focused on the woes of the Haney family, who lived less than 2,500 feet downhill from the Yeager well pad and centralized impoundment. Obviously, the homeowner in this photo, who is nearly surrounded by a towering well pad, was appeased with an ‘aggravation fee.’ The house might even be within the 500 foot setback, which can be waived with a signed agreement.
It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ here in southwestern Pennsylvania, so it’s pretty clear to me what tomorrow will bring. My recommendation for those continuing to live in our ‘gas patch,’ especially those ‘danger close,’ would be to improve your water and air. The water with a reverse osmosis filtering system for tapwater, and clean the air with one or more Austin Air cleaners like the one below. Be sure to get the more expensive ‘Healthmate Plus’ that retails for $715, and filters additional air toxins.
The Austin Air ‘Healthmate Plus’ is described on their website this way:
“The Medical Grade HEPA used in the Austin Air Healthmate Plus® effectively removes up to 95% of bacteria and aerosolized viruses* larger than 0.1 microns. It also eliminates a wide range of gases, chemicals, VOC’s and formaldehyde. This broad-spectrum adsorption makes it the best choice for people exposed to smoke from wildfires and offers dentists and their patients protection against airborne contaminants.”