Moving away from fossil fuel: The escalating push for setbacks from drilling sites

In the United States, about 17.6 million people live within one mile of an oil or gas well

Published July 26, 2020 12:20PM (EDT)

Fracking Drilling Rig at the Golden Hour (Getty Images)
Fracking Drilling Rig at the Golden Hour (Getty Images)

This story was produced by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues. You can sign up for their newsletter here.

Ashley Hernandez was in middle school when her family moved into its first house, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington. For years, her undocumented parents had moved around in search of steady work, gone without meals, rented out too-small apartments. Finally they had a place of their own, with three bedrooms and even a yard. 

"My parents were really excited about that American dream that we'd always talked about," Hernandez said.

But their new home was just 500 feet from an active oil drilling site. 

It wasn't long before the family learned to keep the windows shut so they wouldn't breathe in particulate matter. Soot piled up on their cars. The lights and the noise from the oilfield made it hard to think. Hernandez regularly woke up to a pillow soaked through from a nosebleed that ran all night.

Wilmington is the home of the Port of Los Angeles, but it is also host to the largest oilfield in the state by production, the third-largest in the nation. Logos for oil companies like Marathon and Valero crop up at the local library branch, the YMCA, even stamped on free pencils they give out in schools. Today, the 27-year-old Hernandez still lives with her family near the oilfield, and works as an advocate for residents who face health issues they blame on oil drilling. She's also part of a coalition pushing California lawmakers to establish a setback—a minimum distance oil and gas developments must keep from homes, schools, hospitals, and other sites. 

Experts say that more than a decade of research—including two new studies out of California, and one on a Texas community—has made it clear that current setback distances, in states where they exist, are inadequate to protect public health. Now, political pressure to push oil and gas wells about half a mile from homes and other buildings is peaking across the country, over industry alarm that such measures could amount to a de facto ban on drilling.

Uni Blake, a public health toxicologist at the American Petroleum Institute, said that current epidemiological studies, like the two new California studies, rely on estimates based on how close people were to facilities, not actual exposure levels. She said the industry is following best practices and government regulations to minimize or mitigate exposures to potentially harmful substances. 

In the United States, about 17.6 million people live within one mile of an oil or gas well. Yet setbacks are largely a patchwork of state regulations and municipal ordinances—there is no federal standard.  Many states have a setback requirement, but most are in the range of 150 to 500 feet. The most stringent state rule among the major oil and gas producing states is Colorado's—a 1,000 foot setback from high-occupancy buildings, such as schools and hospitals. 

In Pennsylvania, a state grand jury recently released a report after a two-year investigation into the hydraulic fracturing industry and the state's handling of it. Number one on its list of eight recommendations: "Expanding no-drill zones in Pennsylvania from the required 500 feet to 2,500 feet." In Colorado, a citizen coalition is pursuing several options for a setback proposal in 2020 after a referendum it backed for a 2500-foot setback was defeated, but won more than 40 percent of voters and became a flashpoint in the state's 2018 midterm elections. In California, a bill that would forcethe state to establish a setback (currently there is none related to residences) of up to 2,500 feet has passed the state Assembly and is working its way to a Senate vote.

University of Pittsburgh radiation oncologist Marsha Haley started digging into setbacks after a fracking well was proposed in 2014 for a lot near her then-eight-year-old daughter's school in Mars, Pennsylvania—part of a five-school campus. Given her day job, Haley was concerned about the levels of radiation she had read were in fracking wastewater. The more she read, the more worried she became. 

"Not only was radiation an issue, but different chemicals, and non-disclosures of chemicals, and explosions," she said. "Putting it 500 feet from the school, it just seemed very counterintuitive. I was curious how the state came up with that number." 

For a study she published with colleagues in 2016, Haley analyzed setback distances across heavily drilled natural gas shale regions in Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Setbacks, they concluded, were largely not based on data, but on political compromise.

"Setbacks are established by way of bargain," said former Pittsburgh city council president Doug Shields, known for leading the charge to ban fracking in the city in 2010. 

He would know. These days, in his role as a liaison with the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, Shields hops from borough to township across western Pennsylvania, helping local officials establish setbacks that go further than the state's 500-foot minimum on the hyper-local level.

State and municipal setback distances set long ago were based more on "immediate quality-of-life concerns" than on a careful analysis of health effects at different distances, explained Ann Alexander, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.  

"Oil and gas wells are noisy and ugly and they smell bad. Maybe you threw a dart at a board," she said. "You ended up with setbacks that were way less than what the new science suggests is necessary." 

Those findings, which accumulated over the last decade as research into novel hydraulic fracturing took off, have tended to focus on health impacts that can be easily tied to geography. 

Studies on births and childhood cancers, for example, involve subjects whose residences are recorded on birth certificates and who aren't likely to have moved around very much. These papers have consistently shown a correlation between proximity to oil and gas developments and negative health effects, from increased stress, dizziness, headaches and asthma, to premature births and low birth weights, hospitalizations for heart issues, bladder cancer and leukemia. 

"Oil and gas wells are noisy and ugly and they smell bad. Maybe you threw a dart at a board. You ended up with setbacks that were way less than what the new science suggests is necessary." 

The health issues, scientists say, are tied to noise, as well as air and water pollutants emanating from oil and gas developments, including carcinogenic compounds like benzene, and diesel exhaust from trucks.

Lois Bower-Bjornson tells visitors all of this on her tours of "frackland" outside of Pittsburgh. With her husband, she's raised four children in an 1830 farmhouse on 12 acres in a lush green countryside known as Scenery Hill. But it wasn't long after they moved there 16 years ago that fracking began nearby. Now, it's hard to have conversations on their spacious country porch over the noise from constant truck traffic, and she's lost count of the number of gas projects surrounding her home. There's a gas pipeline 500 feet from the house, and nearby well pads number in the dozens.

So Bower-Bjornson, now a field organizer with the Clean Air Council, became an activist without meaning to, and has since testified before the Environmental Protection Agency and congressional committees on behalf of residents affected by fracking. She was on her way out the door to one such meeting when her youngest son, who has suffered chronic nosebleeds, began making noises she had never heard before from the bathroom. When she went to check on him, blood gushed from his nose as he choked on blood clots that "came pouring out of his mouth into the sink."

Similar stories pepper the Pennsylvania grand jury report. One homeowner testified that the realization hit that it was time to move while at Costco, buying a double-pack of hydrogen peroxide to clean blood off the carpet. Now, Bower-Bjornson and her husband are also looking for somewhere else to live. 

Most of the studies in this arena so far have focused on fracking because it was new and involved the use of a mysterious cocktail of chemicals shot at high pressures through the earth. But two new studies in California now link some of the same health impacts to conventional oil and gas wells.

In one, researchers at Stanford University analyzed close to a quarter-million births between 1998 and 2011 from mothers living within six miles of oil and gas wells in California's San Joaquin Valley. The closer to the wells the women lived, and the more wells they lived near, the more likely they were to experience preterm births. 

For this study, as with others of its kind, the researchers statistically controlled for other factors they thought could have caused the relevant health risks: race, ethnicity, age, educational attainment, even neighborhood traffic levels. 

"A key next step, I think, is finding out explicitly how close you need to be to a well for it to cause harm," the study's coauthor and Stanford associate professor Marshall Burke, said in a press release. 

The question of a "safe" distance from oil and gas development has been debated for years. An influential 2014 University of Maryland analysis recommended a 2,000-foot setback, based on an assessment of potential hazards including air and water quality, noise levels, and earthquake risk. In a formal 2018 survey, experts across health care, public health and environmental research reached a consensus that setbacks should be at least a quarter mile, or 1,320 feet—still more than the country's biggest setback requirement in states with major drilling operations.   

In general, says Matt Kelso with the advocacy group FracTracker Alliance, which maps fracking developments around the country, "Groups are very reluctant to say that there's a safe distance. If you're 600 feet from a well, does that make you safe? If you're 800 feet from a well, does that make you safe?" 

For its part, the oil and gas industry sees steeper setbacks as threatening its very existence. In Colorado, the industry spent $40 million to defeat the 2018 setback referendum, outspending advocates 43-to-1. The setback requirement would have applied to any new development permits, and also to the repermitting of old wells that had been abandoned. An analysis of a potential 2,500-foot setback conducted by a state agency found that it would have made 94 percent of non-federal land off-limits for drilling.

"That's a ban, and we campaigned hard to defeat that ban," Colorado Oil and Gas Association president and CEO Dan Haley said via email. "Most importantly, it would have put tens of thousands of Coloradans, a majority from outside our industry, on the unemployment line."   

"This is something that is being done nationwide," Neil Ray, president of the Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners, told The Colorado Sun. "It is a strategy to shut down the oil and gas industry."

As for the health risks to those living nearby, Haley cited a 2019 report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which used emissions data from oil and gas operations in the state to estimate potential health risks. "Even during those hypothetical, worst-case conditions, the study found there would be low health risks from any acute emission exposure," he said. "And perhaps most importantly, the results confirmed there are no anticipated long-term health impacts, including cancer, for people living near oil and natural gas development."

If passed, the California setback measure would likely apply to new permits. But there is potential to also include permits to rework an existing well—deepening it, reboring it, drilling a new borehole right next to the old one—so that eventually all existing wells within 2,500 feet of a home would be phased out. Kyle Ferrar of FracTracker Alliance, who has provided technical advice on the bill, said that about 10 percent of California's wells fall in this zone. 

Nonetheless, a large coalition of groups including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and several state and local Black and Hispanic chambers of congress, have united in opposition.

"A one-size-fits-all approach for the entire state does little to protect health and safety and will result in a significant loss of jobs and cost the state billions,"  Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, a member of the coalition, wrote in an email.

As for the new California studies linking health issues to proximity to oil and gas wells, a spokesperson for the group said via email, "we are aware of those reports and are taking a look at what data was chosen for study and the methodologies behind each report."

Back in Wilmington, Ashley Hernandez is sure that, at the very least, 500 feet is too close. 

"The best way to protect people from the impacts of oil drilling is by keeping it in the ground," Hernandez said. "We want to see a setback. We're not taking anything less. I feel the shaking and quaking. I'll smell something and I'll just get scared. And I'm tired of people in my community being the canary birds in the mine." 

By Alexandra Tempus

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