When it comes to oil and gas drilling in urban and suburban areas, the question is often ‘how close is too close?’ That’s been the major point of contention in Wyoming, where the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is currently considering a rule to increase the setback distance between oil and gas wells and houses from 350 to 500 feet. Many homeowners would like it to be even further. Distance is only one part of the issue though, as Brad Brooks would attest.
Brooks has become familiar with the sound of drilling in the last six months. He lives in a subdivision east of Cheyenne and last fall, an oil company started drilling about a mile east of his house. That might seem like a long way, but Brooks says sound travels on the prairie.
“Last night, about 10:30 p.m., I was woken up out of a dead sleep, and it was actually from the facility, a mile away, and I could hear them revving up and down a diesel engine,” he said.
That noise intrusion is part of the reason Brooks was so upset when he found out in January that EOG Resources has filed for permits to drill 26 wells, from four pads, much, much closer to his house—just 840 feet away.
“If I can hear them at a mile, I know I’m going to hear them at 840 feet,” he said.
According to Brooks, EOG plans to cordon off the wells with a soil berm and stacks of hay bales, but he doesn’t think that will do much—not for the noise, and not for the piercing nighttime lights. Brooks has asked the Oil and Gas Commission to increase the setback distance to a quarter mile during public meetings, but recognizes that he doesn't have a lot of a sway in this situation.
“As the leader of my family I feel helpless, I mean, what do I do?” he implored.
Brooks may not be able to do much, but the oil and gas companies drilling near his house could do a lot, and less than 20 miles away, in Colorado, they have to. That state has strict noise control regulations for oil and gas activities, from drilling to pipeline construction.
Chuck Myers, who lives in Weld County, in northern Colorado, had a drilling rig parked just a couple of hundred feet in front of his house last fall.
“I could have shot out their lights with a BB gun, I mean they were that close,” he said. But the rig had a big, four-story tall sound curtain around it, and Myers says that made all the difference. “I mean you could hear it, I’m not going to sit here and tell you you couldn’t hear it," he said. "But it wasn’t any louder than these cars going by.”
In fact, Myers says based on his experience with other nearby wells, that didn't have any sound or light barriers, that those things are far more important than distance.
“Because even a quarter mile away, if you don’t have these sound barriers or light barriers, you’re still going to be miserable,” he said.
Just down the road from Myers house there is a production facility—a big battery of tanks and compressors that capture and store the oil until it’s trucked away. Don Behrens’ company designed and built the permanent sound barrier around the facility, and he says it's designed for a 15 to 20 decibel drop. That means that while inside the sound wall it sounds like a blender and is difficult to talk, outside it's quieter than the cars passing by.
Behrens does a lot of the oil and gas noise control in Northern Colorado and around the country, in Louisiana and Texas and California, and his view is that noise is a relatively simple engineering problem.
“Sound is physics and you can fix it. This is not like air emissions," he said. "If you want to make something quiet, it can be done quietly.”
The question in Wyoming is whether it will be done quietly. The setback proposal the state is considering requires companies to submit plans to the state’s Oil and Gas Supervisor, Mark Watson, detailing how they’re going to control noise and light. Watson says he’ll require barriers—but unlike in Colorado, Wyoming will not mandate what decibel level is allowed near homes, and Watson says it will be up to companies to decide what kind of soundproofing they use.
“Because this rule is so new, we haven’t even specified sound limits or anything like that," he said. "That’s probably something we’d have to deal with with the Health Department, who has more expertise in that.”
The Wyoming Department of Health says it has no plans to look into the issue. But there are plenty of existing studies about the adverse health effects of environmental noise—from lost sleep and poor school performance to physical effects like high blood pressure, and whether the state chooses to address the issue or not, it’s unlikely homeowners like Brad Brooks will suffer in silence