In Oklahoma’s oil and gas country, you can’t build a home near a well. But drilling a well next to a home is perfectly legal.
Nobody knows this better than Jarod and Tanja Pachner. Their home in Ellis County was surrounded by active wells being drilled on their neighbor’s land by Chesapeake Energy. The couple got none of the royalties, but all of the dust, tractor-trailer traffic and the day-and-night drone of a compressor.
“It pretty much sounded like there was a semi sitting in your driveway, running,” Tanja Pachner says. “A constant engine, just always running.”
The home represented the Pachners’ life savings. Their plan, says Jarod Pachner, was to sell the home and use the money to start a livestock business. They found a buyer in November, but before they could close on the deal, construction started on another new well — this one just a few hundred feet from the home.
The Pachners didn’t want the buyers to be surprised by the change. They called the buyers and encouraged them to come out before the deal was finalized. The Pachners ended up letting the buyers out of the contract.
“They have a young family like we do,” Tanja says. “We didn’t have to, legally.”
“But it was the right thing to do,” Jarod says.
The Pachners’ situation speaks to a couple of cracks that exist in state and local laws when it comes to drilling near places where people live or work.
In Oklahoma, it’s illegal to build a “habitable structure” closer than 125 feet from an active well or 50 feet from related surface equipment. The inverse, however, is not true. If the habitable structure already exists, there’s nothing to prevent a company from drilling nearby.
The rules also differ between urban and rural areas. Many cities and towns have zoning ordinances that limit drilling near homes and businesses.
“But when you get out into rural Oklahoma, it’s a different story,” says Matt Skinner, spokesman for the state Corporation Commission.
There aren’t any zoning ordinances on the edges of Ellis County, or in the rural areas seeing most of Oklahoma’s drilling boom. Many Oklahomans, like the Pachners, have no say in the placement of wells on their neighbors’ land. And there’s no legal barrier preventing a well from being drilled as close as property lines allow.
Drilling rigs often operate 24 hours a day, and safety rules require operators to run bright flood lights during the evening hours. Nuisance laws allowing local governments to fine operators in urban areas are absent in rural Oklahoma.
“Every person who lives next to a well site has to experience this,” Tanja Pachner says. “There’re no laws against dirt, there’re no laws against noise — and there should be.”
During a mid-day interview with StateImpact Oklahoma in November, more than a dozen tractor-trailers paraded down the gravel road in front of the Pachner home and turned into the lot next door. Dust blanketed the couple.
Jarod Pachner “stepped off” the distance from their home and the new well, which he says is 450 feet from the corner of the home and less than 100 feet from the property line.
“That’s just not far enough,” Tanja Pachner says.
States Have Their Say
But other energy-rich states do have laws that limit drilling near homes.
Seventeen states set minimum distances between shale gas wells and buildings, according to a survey of state laws by researchers at Resource for the Future’s Center for Energy Economics and Policy.
In North Dakota, drilling isn’t permitted within 500 feet of an “occupied dwelling” unless there’s a compelling environmental or water-access reason.
Colorado requires a 150-foot buffer between wells and occupied dwellings in rural areas. Regulators there are considering expanding the drilling setback to the same 350 feet the state requires in urban areas. That proposal has touched off a debate between the oil and gas industry, residents, homebuilders and cattlemen. Homebuilders and cattlemen expressed concern that changing the laws could lead to property seizures and land-use disputes. Citizens rights group are worried about health risks from living close to wells.
No such changes have been proposed in Oklahoma, says the Corporation Commission’s Matt Skinner.
Oklahoma takes a more informal approach to drilling near homes and businesses. Inspectors and field managers at the state Corporation Commission try to encourage a dialog between drillers, landowners and neighbors who might be affected, says Skinner.Despite increased activity in recent years, formal complaints to the agency about oil and gas have remained flat, commission data show. Noise is the number one complaint, Skinner says.
“Sometimes we can, on an unofficial basis, work out something about the noise,” he says.
The Pachners complained to Chesapeake Energy. They say the company installed mufflers and enclosed equipment in sheds to reduce the sound of the droning compressor. Chesapeake Energy officials declined StateImpact’s requests for an interview about the wells near the Pachner home, or more general questions about how the company handles such complaints.
Jarod Pachner says his complaints to Chesapeake field managers, the Corporation Commission and other state agencies were met with some version of the same response.
“I don’t know what to tell you, you live in oil country,” Jarod recounts. “That’s true. But there’s just no common sense to it.”
In the end, the Pachners did find a buyer for their house — one that wasn’t dismayed by the noise, dust and traffic: A trucking company that services the oil and gas industry.
“But I don’t think anyone will be living there,” she says. “I think they’re turning it into an office.”