Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

In Rural Oklahoma, Drilling Hits Close To Home

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

A parade of trucks pass by Jarod Pachner as he stands in the front yard of his former home, which is surrounded by oil and gas wells.

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.”

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Tanja Pachner watches a tractor-trailer turn into her neighbor's property where it unloaded gravel for a new Chesapeake Energy well, which was being drilled a few hundred feet from their former home.

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.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Matt Skinner with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission says the agency tries, on an unofficial basis, to encourage a discussion between rural landowners, energy companies and neighbors impacted by nearby drilling.

“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.

RFF/Center for Energy Economics and Policy

Seventeen states have setback restrictions for shale gas drilling, according to research by the Center for Energy Economics and Policy. Click here for their state-by-state review.

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.

Ends Well

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.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.


  • Martha

    So does this mean that if you own property but not the mineral rights a company could drill anywhere they want on your land?

  • WomanoftheWind

    Would love to see a follow up and tie in with a related story by Darrell Rice at Watonga Republican. The story’s focus is north of Watonga/near Hitchcock where a big, private mining operation for oil/gas road gypsum is choking those neighbors’ health (reps problems), quality of life (the constant, loud noise and dust) and sure has impacted the wild canyon pastureland in that area. State agency and politicians questioned in the Watonga Republican article respond like the ones in yours. Keep up the great journalism.

  • Dewayne

    Newfield exploration is placing a rig right up against fence across road from my house is ther anything that can be done due to we moved here because I hav a second brain tumor and get bad headaches from bright lights and loud noises.I also was tested several years ago and found that I am allergic to dust.Also have 6 kids that will not be able to sleep when they start drilling.There I is also tinhorn in front of rig that runs under highway to my stocked pond and livestock water and eventually to lake where Duncan receives drinking water,is there any hope in a situation like this!

    • Russell

      Good luck Dewayne . Hope you get this resolved.

      • Debbie Wolcott

        They don’t care nor do the mineral rights people. I actually have had calls from some woman who owns the mineral rights acting like I am hurting her by fighting a well. I know I’ll lose but I’ll still fight.

  • Yvon Lebras

    This is definitely a difficult situation because I do feel for the family that can’t sell their home with an oil well as their neighbor, though at the same time, we do need the oil. There must be a way to find the best of both worlds where we can get oil domestically, but not have to uproot any families or inconvenience them. There is enough space for us all.

    Yvon Lebras | http://www.funksdrilling.com

    • Debbie Wolcott

      Just wait to they send you a letter that they want a one mile road down the middle of your property. Forget the cows! and put in a 5 acre FRacking well in the middle of a hay field and think 30,000 was a lot of money. I always voted republican NOT ANY MORE.

    • Debbie Wolcott

      There is no answer. The oil companies do not even care or act as cheap as possible.They give you the price of the land. Yea right out in the middle of a hay field with roads going every which direction. If you want noise control around forget it. They do not think noise, dust or anything matters because they don’t have to care in the State of Oklahoma. I never grew up with this horrible scene before. I always voted republican but guess who is going to change after this. I feel angry at the moment.

      • Charles Spurlock

        Debbie, I am a professor at Langston University and was wondering if you could talk to me about your experience. you can email me at cjspurlock@langston.edu to further communicate.

    • Me

      There is it is called research and development.. I know we have to save money for when oil prices go down but more people will stop focusing on bashing oil companies if there would be a little more practice approach of winning the hearts of many with a little compassion to the people that actually live there we have one 1/4 mile away that is extremely noisy.. it is kinda Erie when it stops..

  • Nancy Sullivan

    Are you going to drill in or around Boswell, Ok

  • Russell

    I have a natural gas pump jack that’s pumping the oil . The pump jack has just started a few months ago but it’s driving me nuts . I’ve lived here over 20 years and have just retired and this noise is constant . There has to be away to quite things down.

  • Russell

    This is why oil companies get bad names . If they only used a little of the money to help the ones they effect these wells , they wouldn’t get such a response to them .

  • Shon Borneman

    I was just served a notice about a company setting up a drilling rig. There’s a hearing date and I will attend, but I know it won’t stop them. We will have to move. My son can’t take loud noises. The sad part is that they don’t even care about how they are effecting the mental health of the youth. We don’t have the money to buy another place and I know this one will never sell now. I’m so upset. I wish there was something I could do to make them stop, realize, and care or at least act upon the destructive consequences of their wells.

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