This EnerFAQs explains setbacks in the energy industry, how they are determined, and how they may affect Alberta citizens and their communities.
A setback is the absolute minimum distance that must be maintained between any energy facility (for example, a drilling or producing well, a pipeline, or a gas plant) and a dwelling, rural housing development, urban centre, or public facility. Setbacks vary according to the type of development and whether the well, facility, or pipeline contains sour gas.
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) examines each specific situation to decide if something is a public facility. When establishing setback distances, the AER does not consider simply any facility used by the public to be a public facility; it must also be a facility that is often used by a large number of people. It also considers the evacuation options that apply to that particular facility. For example, a large year-round campground containing many individual campsites may be designated a public facility under the AER’s definition, whereas a small, seldom-used campground may not.
Unrestricted country development refers to any collection of permanent dwellings outside an urban centre that number more than eight per quarter section.
Setbacks prevent populated areas from developing too close to energy facilities and energy facilities from getting too close to people. In other words, setbacks provide a buffer zone between the public and the facility if there is a problem. To better understand the principle behind a setback, let’s compare it to a 30 kilometre per hour speed limit near a school playground. While this speed limit is not a “guarantee” of safety, statistics show that it is much safer to have one than to have no speed limit at all; the average driver can stop quickly at this speed if faced with an emergency, such as a child suddenly running into the street.
The child’s safety isn’t guaranteed, but the odds are strongly in the child’s favour with the low speed limit in place. In a sense, the AER’s setback distances function as the energy industry’s “speed limits.”
Setback distances have existed, in various forms, for oil and gas operations since early production days (pipeline rights-of-way are a good example).
Established in 1976, new sour gas setback distances were immediately used by the energy industry. In 1979, provincial planning authorities formally adopted the same setback distances, so both the energy industry and all Alberta municipalities use these same guidelines when proposing and approving developments of any kind.
Sour gas facilities are categorized by the AER into four hazard levels based on release rates for wells, release volumes for pipelines, and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) content. There are predetermined setback distances for each level of sour gas facility. Once the appropriate level has been established for a particular facility, AER staff then examine the types of developments in the vicinity and how people typically use the general area. For example, AER staff would check to see if there are houses, schools, or hospitals close by. If necessary, a setback distance may be increased due to these types of developments.
The concentration of H2S and how fast it is coming out of the ground determine the release rate.
Release volumes are specific to pipelines. There is a fixed amount, or volume, of gas that can be released from any pipeline once the valves are closed—this is called the release volume. Pipelines are built with emergency shutdown valves installed at preset points along the pipeline. When the valves detect pressure drops in the pipeline, they close automatically, stopping the flow of gas through the pipeline and trapping the gas between the two valves closest to the rupture. That’s all the gas that can escape, and the amount of escaping gas can be quickly calculated.
The higher the concentration of H2S and the rate that it is released, the greater the potential for risk. That is why H2S content and release rates are important factors in setback distances.
Extra space is built into setback distances in the case of towns and major campgrounds to ensure that a proper evacuation can be carried out if necessary. It is much easier to evacuate one family than a great number of people or an entire community.
AER setback distances are deliberately designed so that the actual risk to people from sour gas facilities will be reduced to the lowest levels possible.
The energy industry is required to maintain safe operations at all of its facilities. With pipelines, for example, the industry has developed a number of important safety practices, such as specially designed block valves and different kinds of pipeline monitoring systems. In the case of drilling wells, industry must comply with strict blowout prevention measures.
Such situations are rare, as both the industry and the municipal planning authorities have followed the same setback guidelines for some time. If you have reason to believe that such a problem does exist for you, contact the operator of the facility or the nearest AER field centre.
Municipal authorities oversee land development and do not permit development where people will be living within the setback. However, lands affected by the setback for a pipeline, for instance, could be landscaped and used as green space. Note that municipal authorities do have setback restrictions for developments other than sour gas, such as road allowance restrictions. This question and others like it should be directed to your local municipal authority. AER advice is available to these authorities with reference to specific projects, as required.
Setback distances may be changed when either the rate or volume of the energy facility changes or when the type of development in the setback area is altered. Release rates and release volumes may change over time due to dropping production from a well or the H2S content changing.
An example of altering the purpose for which land is being used is if a landowner wishes to convert a large year-round campground that had been designated a public facility back to farmland and then build a home on it for the family. While the campground may have required a large setback by the planning authority because there could be many people in the camp, the single farm residence would usually require a smaller setback, because it would be easier to notify and evacuate one family.
Setbacks may restrict a community development to a greater extent than an individual dwelling. For example, if your town wanted to expand through annexation, a 500 metre setback distance from any level-2 sour gas facility would be recommended, rather than the 100 metre setback distance facing an individual residence.
A setback is the amount of land serving as a buffer zone between people and energy facilities. An emergency planning zone, or EPZ, is the distance outward from a facility where people and the environment could be affected by a potential worst-case incident.
The AER requires that companies follow section 5.4, “Category Type and Minimum Consultation and Notification Requirements,” of Directive 056: Energy Development Applications and Schedules when dealing with landowners and occupants. The company must provide affected landowners and occupants with factual information regarding the facility and explain the potential land-use restrictions that may occur as a result of the development.
For some applications, The AER requires that a company indicate in its application whether any of the landowners contacted have concerns about the application. The AER may direct the company to contact you again to explore ways to resolve any concerns you might have. Also, anyone who believes they may be directly and adversely affected by an energy resource application can file a statement of concern. See EnerFAQs Expressing Your Concerns – How to File a Statement of Concern About an Energy Resource Project.
Decisions regarding compensation for placing energy facilities on your land do not fall under the AER’s jurisdiction, but are the responsibility of the Alberta Surface Rights Board. The Alberta Surface Rights Board may be reached at 780-427-2444.
For more information on the AER and its processes or if you wish to speak with your local field centre or have general questions about oil and gas in the province of Alberta, contact the AER’s Customer Contact Centre: Monday to Friday (8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) at 1-855-297-8311 (toll free).
This document is part of the EnerFAQs series, which explains the AER’s regulations and processes as they relate to specific energy issues. Please visit www.aer.ca to read more of the EnerFAQs series.
Every year the AER collects, compiles, and publishes a large amount of technical data and information about Alberta’s energy development and resources for use by both industry and the general public. This includes raw data, statistics, information on regulations, policies, and decisions, and hearing materials.
Publications may be either viewed at the AER library or obtained from the Information Distribution Services (IDS). Both are housed on the tenth floor of the AER head office in Calgary. Publications may also be downloaded free of charge from the AER website www.aer.ca.
To obtain a print or CD copy of a specific publication, contact IDS by phone (403-297-8311), fax (403-297-7040), or e-mail (InformationRequest@aer.ca).AER Head Office