Photo by: iStock / milehightraveler

Pennsylvania setback regulations for fracking do not prevent setback incidents

04/28/2021 | Energy Policy

The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act (Act 13) signed in 2012 did not significantly alter how unconventional natural gas (UNG) wells were sited in relation to nearby buildings, often due to exemptions, according to a study led by our Visiting Scientist Drew Michanowicz. This results in wells placed within PA’s setback distance (500 ft.) – a distance that has previously been found to not be protective against routine exposures to toxic substances such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and PM2.5 from fracking. Published in Energy Policy, The effect of Pennsylvania’s 500 ft. surface setback regulation on siting unconventional natural gas wells near buildings: an interrupted time-series analysis” is the first study to look at the effectiveness of Pennsylvania’s statewide setback regulations and identify the potential risks and exposure pathways for people living near fracking or UNG wells.

Setbacks are the land-zoning regulations intended to physically separate industrial activity from places that merit protection like homes, schools, hospitals, and surface water. UNG extraction often brings activity to these places that are not historically seen as industrial, such as suburban areas, and brings hazards and harms that are not well understood. 

Key findings:

The effectiveness of setback policies depends on how many opportunities there are for exemptions from siting restrictions.

    • Following Act 13, which increased UNG well-to-building setback requirement from 200 ft. to 500 ft., a total of 371 setback incidents were observed likely due to pre-existing well pads that were exempted from the regulation (35%) and a combination of landowner consent and regulatory distance variances rather than encroaching building development.
    • The majority (up to 65%) of setback incidents in PA were likely due to landowner consent waivers and/or operator requested distance variances.
    • One out of every 13.7 UNG wells drilled in PA exhibited a setback incident after the passage of Act 13.

Exempting pre-existing well pads from new setback regulations has clear implications for human health and safety.

    • A possible 46% decrease in the setback incident rate could have been achieved by outlawing new setback incidents on the 2,049 pre-Act 13 well pads.
    • Inequities could persist unchecked due to the ambiguity of the exemption approval process combined with a confidential mineral rights leasing process.

Policy recommendations for new or amended setback regulations:

    • New or amended setback regulations should
      • Revisit exemptions and where warranted, impose additional mitigation measures to ensure setback regulations provide adequate protections for health and safety as intended.
      • Include additional protective mitigation measures when an existing well pad is altered and/or require both regulatory approval and landowner consent.
    • Regulators could routinely track and report well siting exemption rates and rationales and if warranted, consider changes to setback rules to narrow exemptions that are used too frequently.
    • Regulators could ensure better landowner consent provisions; for instance, by requiring that the operator demonstrate to the landowner and the regulator that there is no alternative siting possible before landowner consent can be obtained.
    • Regulators could increase transparency by making setback exemption permits publicly available online alongside other commonly reported well permit information.

“The effect of Pennsylvania’s 500 ft. surface setback regulation on siting unconventional natural gas wells near buildings: an interrupted time-series analysis,” Drew R. Michanowicz, Jonathan J. Buonocore, Katherine E. Konschnik, Shaun A. Goho, Aaron S. Bernstein, Energy Policy, April 28, 2021. DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2021.112298 

The 2023 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief for the U.S.

Read Now

The 2022 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Policy Brief for the U.S.

Climate change puts everyone at risk, but policy decisions and industry actions make some communities more vulnerable to the harms of climate change.

Read Now

Home is Where the Pipeline Ends

Our study is the first to test for health-damaging air pollutants in unburned natural gas where it is used: in our homes.

Read Now

2021 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: U.S. Policy Report

Our response to climate change must prioritize and optimize health and equity. We can improve health through climate actions that reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Read Now

Methane Reductions in the Oil and Gas Sector can Protect Public Health

A literature review examines the last ten years of research on methane and health-damaging air pollutant emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Read Now

Negative impacts of burning natural gas and biomass have surpassed coal generation in many states

A new inventory of air pollution impacts from stationary sources over the past decade shows this trend may continue.

Read Now

Pennsylvania setback regulations for fracking do not prevent setback incidents

The first study to look at the effectiveness of PA's statewide setback regulations and identify the potential risks and exposures for people living near fracking or UNG wells.

Read Now

Pollution from fossil fuel combustion deadlier than previously thought

Fine particulate pollution from fossil fuel combustion was responsible for one in five early deaths worldwide in 2018, with vulnerable groups at greatest risk.

Read Now

Fossil fuel air pollution responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide

New research finds that deaths from fossil fuel emissions are higher than previously thought—more than 8 million people per year, worldwide.

Read Now

'We Don't Have To Live This Way': Doctors Call For Climate Action

A sprawling analysis published by The Lancet focuses on public health data from 2019, and finds that heat waves, air pollution and extreme weather increasingly damage human health.

Read Now

Fossil fuel extraction is harming Indigenous communities, say experts

Fossil fuel production causes environmental health effects in Indigenous communities, and leadership from frontline Indigenous activists has been critical in fighting these environmental injustices, according to experts who spoke at a Harvard Chan School event.

Read Now

Health consequences of using biomass for energy

Burning biomass has significant public health and environmental justice consequences, according to a recent opinion piece co-authored by Harvard Chan School’s Jonathan Buonocore.

Read Now

Biomass is not health neutral

Our Research Scientist Jonathan Buonocore writes that even as Congress declares biomass carbon neutral in the latest spending bill, burning it puts thousands of lives at risk.

Read Now

Another KY coal plant to retire, but the pollution remains

The Green Station coal power plant is transitioning to nuclear, but it will continue to leach harmful toxins.

Read Now

Vehicle emissions linked to thousands of deaths in northeast, Mid-Atlantic

An estimated 7,100 people in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions died as a result of exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter from vehicle emissions in 2016.

Read Now

New Study: The Health Impacts of the Coal-to-Gas Transition

A new study out from Harvard University explores the health impacts of transitioning from coal to other combustible fuels.

Read Now

Coal Phase-Down Has Lowered, Not Eliminated Health Risks From Building Energy, Study Says

Biomass and natural gas have become an increasingly large share of the health burden of fueling buildings and factories.

Read Now

Harvard Study Says Clean Electricity Will Prevent Premature Deaths

Reset’s sustainability contributor Karen Weigert introduces listeners to our researchers for a discussion on their study of how clean electricity will save lives.

Read Now

Law meant to push drilling further from houses had little impact, study finds

Grandfathered wells and exemptions put wells closer to homes, new study finds.

Read Now

As deaths from burning coal decline, natural gas now a leading hazard, study shows

Pollution from natural gas is now responsible for more deaths and greater health costs than coal in Illinois, according to a new study.

Read Now