New study: Frequent use of exemptions may undermine public health protections of oil and gas setback policies. Exemptions, variances & consent waivers: A frac’er’s best friends.

Policies designed to protect public health from fracking may be ineffective in practice by PSE Healthy Energy, April 28, 2021,

Frequent use of exemptions may undermine public health protections of oil and gas setback policies, according to a new study led by researchers at the research institute PSE Healthy Energy, Harvard University, and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Solutions at Duke University. The study, published April 28, 2021 in Energy Policy, is the first to assess the effectiveness of distance-based setback regulations for unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) or “fracking.”

“Setback regulations are commonly employed to protect public health, so we wanted to test if they’re effective in practice,” said lead author Drew Michanowicz, DrPH, MPH, CPH Senior Scientist at PSE Healthy Energy and visiting scientist with the Center for Climate, Health, and Global Environment at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE). “From our assessment of PA’s 2012 setback policy, existing well pad exemptions and waivers seem to occur frequently enough that we didn’t see much change in how wells were sited in relation to nearby buildings.”

Previous studies have associated adverse health impacts with residents’ proximity to UNGD wells, including birth defects, premature births, asthma, migraines, and fatigue. As a result, policymakers across the United States use setback requirements to establish development-free zones around well sites. To assess the effectiveness of setbacks in protecting public health, the study focused on Pennsylvania’s Act 13—a 2012 statewide law restricting new unconventional wells within 500 ft. of non-industrial buildings. Through a detailed spatial analysis, researchers observed trends in wellhead locations and proximity to likely occupied buildings both before and after Act 13.

Despite the regulation’s intent, the study found no significant change in how wells were sited after Act 13 took effect in 2012. These findings suggest that exemptions, variances and consent waivers provide opportunities to avoid or weaken well siting requirements. This results in wells placed within PA’s setback distance, which has been previously found to be insufficient to protect against routine exposures to toxic substances such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide and PM 2.5 from UNGD. “The effectiveness of setback policies depends not just on the distance, but also on the ease and frequency with which exemptions are granted,” Michanowicz said. “To protect public health and safety, regulators should complement setbacks with other emission controls and other operational and safety performance standards.”

“With the myriad of health effects occurring in communities near hydraulic fracturing—increased hospitalizations, respiratory irritation and birth defects—it’s important to ensure that these setback regulations are actually effective at protecting public health,” said Jonathan Buonocore, Sc.D., research scientist at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE.

Of the 31 oil and gas production states across the country, an estimated 21 have some form of minimum surface setback in place. For states considering strengthened setbacks, these findings demonstrate the impact that setback exemptions and waivers can have in practice. For states with existing setback regulations, regulators could report well siting exemption rates and rationales and if warranted, consider changes to narrow exemptions that may be used too frequently.

More information: Drew R. Michanowicz et al, The effect of Pennsylvania’s 500 ft surface setback regulation on siting unconventional natural gas wells near buildings: An interrupted time-series analysis, Energy Policy (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2021.112298

Journal information: Energy Policy


•First study to assess a strengthened well-to-building setback regulation.

•PA’s Act 13 did not significantly interrupt the rate of building setback incidents.

•Of the 6424 post-Act 13 wells, 371 setback incidents (or ~5.7%) were observed.

•Exemptions are an underappreciated aspect of oil and gas well setback rulemaking.

•Recommendations are included to inform new or amended setback policies.


In 2012 Pennsylvania’s legislature increased the unconventional natural gas (UNG) well-to-building setback requirement from 200 ft to 500 ft through Act 13. To evaluate this policy, we identified all setback incident locations where a UNG well was within 500 ft of a building both before and after the implementation of Act 13. Using an interrupted time series design, we found that Act 13 did not significantly alter how wells were sited in relation to nearby buildings. Of the 1042 wells that contained a building within 500 ft – equating to ~10.1% of UNG wells (n = 11,148) and ~14.7% well pads (n = 479) – a total of 371 well setback incidents occurred after Act 13, likely due from the existing well pad exemption (35%) and a combination of landowner consent and regulatory variances rather than encroaching building construction. Overall, our study suggests that exemptions are an important and underappreciated aspect of oil and gas well setback rulemaking and highlights the relevance of other health-protective regulatory tools often promulgated alongside setbacks. New or amended setback regulations should revisit exemption procedures and where warranted, impose additional mitigation measures to ensure setback regulations provide adequate protections for health and safety as intended.

Research data for this article

Data not available / Data will be made available on request

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