Montana May Require Drilling Buffer Zones Near Homes

Montana regulators were expected to decide Wednesday whether they should follow neighboring energy-producing states in creating buffer zones that set a minimum distance between homes and oil and gas drilling sites.

The state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation planned to take up the issue of drilling setbacks at its meeting in Billings. If it decides to pursue a statewide rule, requirements such as distance and exceptions would be developed at a later date, administrator Jim Halvorson said.

At a hearing in June, farmers and landowners told the board they wanted the setbacks to protect them against possible spills, fires, groundwater contamination, noise and trash from active well sites.

Oil and gas companies oppose buffer zones, which exist in states such as Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado.

Those states produce far more oil than Montana, which has its own formula to encourage drilling while protecting the environment and public safety, said Montana Petroleum Association spokeswoman Jessica Sena.

Drilling setbacks are now decided a case-by-case basis, and creating new regulations could discourage production in the state, she said.

“The current structure is the absolute best solution,” she said. “It encourages negotiated agreements rather than regulated agreements.”

Landowner Pat Wilson of Bainville, who is affiliated with the conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council, said he is skeptical of the oil companies’ argument. The current system places the burden on landowners and a statewide rule is necessary for public safety, he said.

“Especially with Bakken crude. I think the stuff is so volatile, it’s safe to get a little distance between (inhabited) structures and a well,” he said.

Wilson said he would like a minimum setback requirement of a quarter-mile, or 1,320 feet, but he would be flexible if a smaller buffer zone is justifiable.

A buffer rule proposed during the 2015 Legislature would have barred drilling within 1,000 feet of homes and water, but it died in committee.

State regulators in Wyoming tackled the same setback issue in April, voting to increase the minimum allowable distance between oil and gas wells and occupied structures from 350 to 500 feet. The move followed a surge in oil development near Cheyenne and Douglas that has brought noise, air pollution and truck traffic closer to homes.

The unanimous vote by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission left some landowner groups who were pushing for a quarter-mile setback dissatisfied. Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said his group could live with the 500-foot limit even though it could limit options for locating wells.

(AP writer Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this report.)