Unlike its Neighbors, Montana Has No Setback Rules to Protect Montanans from the Impacts of Oil and Gas Drilling

Aug 7, 2015

By Center for Western Priorities

Drilling for oil and natural gas has direct impacts on the people living next to rigs and wells: noise, pollution, and traffic, not to mention inevitable leaks and spills that release chemicals onto the land. One of the most important tools that states have available to protect residents from these impacts is the setback – a mandatory buffer between rigs and homes.

But unlike its Western neighbors, Montana has failed to pass even the most reasonable setback rules to establish a buffer zone between homes and encroaching oil and gas equipment.

North Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado have all stepped up on behalf of public safety, enacting minimum setback distances of 500 feet. Colorado adds an extra layer of protection, setting a 1,000 buffer zone for high-occupancy buildings like schools, nursing homes, and hospitals.

Setbacks graphic

In both New Mexico and Utah, the state has given the authority to set buffer zones to individual counties (and, in the case of New Mexico, municipalities). Uintah County, the most productive natural gas county in Utah, outputting over 4.6 billion MCF of natural gas since 2011, has a setback of 1,000 feet from residences. Carlsbad, New Mexico, home of the highly productive Permian Basin oil field, has implemented citywide setbacks of at least 500 feet, on top of a countywide minimum of 300 feet.

Despite high standards of setback requirements throughout the West, industry representatives say that a setback rule in Montana would have a “chilling effect on drilling.” Yet, oil and gas officials would agree that responsible energy development requires finding an equitable balance between extraction and protecting Western communities. Setbacks in the most productive oil and gas counties in the West (Weld, CO; Uintah, UT; Campbell, WY; Eddy, NM) have struck that balance without hindering development. Last December, oil production in North Dakota hit record highs, yielding over 1 million barrels per day despite a statewide setback of 500 feet.

Now Montana has an opportunity to catch up with its neighbors. This June, a group of farmers and conservation advocates urged Montana regulators to establish commonsense buffer zones, similar to those in place in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado. In two weeks, the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation will decide whether to move forward with a rulemaking.

The decision should be simple. It’s time for Montana to take action and establish a fair balance between development and homeowner safety.