Trinity East's Vapor Chase

Drilling thousands of feet into the earth is a cakewalk compared with dealing with City Hall.

Trinity East's Vapor Chase
David Kent/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT
Will sights like this Chesapeake Energy rig in Fort Worth one day pop up in Dallas? Trinity East is counting on it.

No meeting was too small, too incremental for Trinity East CEO Tom Blanton, because too much was at stake. Whether it was a task force convening to shape rules that may or may not someday govern how gas wells are sunk in Dallas, or a Plan Commission meeting, he'd be there, even though the only item that concerned him was buried under a lengthy lullaby of zoning requests and replats. He'd sit through all of it if he had to. What choice did he have?

You could almost always count on seeing, somewhere near the front of the audience, the back of his razor-clean dome gleaming under the bright lights of council chambers. And he always wore a wool suit, because this was business, and he prided himself on his professionalism before city officials. He had interests to preserve here — $19 million worth, if all you counted was what his natural gas exploration company had paid for the rights to the shale gas trapped beneath city property in northwest Dallas. That investment had so far garnered his company exactly nothing in return. That was bad enough, but if you counted what Trinity East spent planning, preparing, consulting, chasing down a paper trail at the appraiser's office and leasing more than 10,000 acres of private and public land in Dallas County, from Irving to Farmers Branch — a mosaic of mineral rights in which Dallas city property was simply a large piece of a much greater whole — the figure was easily four times $19 million. Trinity East wouldn't talk exact figures, but one got the sense they were the kind of numbers it couldn't afford to sacrifice at the altar of environmentalism and municipal politicking.

Trinity East, Blanton stressed, was a small outfit. Actually, the entirety of Keystone Exploration, Trinity East's parent company, was located on the 31st floor of the Frost Bank tower in downtown Fort Worth. In its small lobby, a bullwhip and spurs hang from one wall. A scale model of an old steel derrick is set back against the glass windows of a conference room that looks out onto the low, dun expanse of downtown's trailing edge.

City Council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs, opponents to drilling on parkland.
Mark Graham
City Council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs, opponents to drilling on parkland.
City Manager Mary Suhm made secret promises to Trinity East, but that was just fine with most City Council members.
Sam Merten
City Manager Mary Suhm made secret promises to Trinity East, but that was just fine with most City Council members.

The company formed 12 years ago, back when the natural gas industry was just beginning to figure out how to drill down into North Texas' Barnett Shale and to curl that drill bit's straight-line descent into a lateral jog, transforming a geologic dead-end into a can't-miss reservoir. Blanton, an investor and developer, happened to have properties just north of Fort Worth. He'd invested in oil and gas for most of his life and knew the game well enough. Now the moneyman took up the risky but reward-rich task of exploration. Keystone drilled, by his count, 12 wells on six pad sites in Tarrant County.

In the ecosystem of an emerging mineral play, Keystone was a small fish. It couldn't throw money around with heavy hitters like ExxonMobil and Chesapeake Energy, so it had to be nimble and find a niche. It navigated thickets of municipal regulation while other companies were still out in the pastures and tiny hamlets where there weren't so many rules and neighbors. In Dallas County, it staked out corners of the shale that hadn't been proved up, tangling with a city no driller had dealt with and never really had a reason to.

At the height of the drilling frenzy in 2007, Keystone was intrigued by Dallas' request for bids to drill city acreage on territory that would represent the far eastern frontier of the Barnett. No one had drilled that far east, for a few reasons. The shale was deeper there, some 9,000 feet down, according to Kent Bowker, former geologist to George Mitchell, the wildcatter who proved shale gas was the next big thing. "Deeper means it's more expensive to drill. The folds in the rock make it harder for the lateral to stay in the zone; more difficult to steer the horizontal [drill bit]," Bowker said. "The rock is under more stress, it's harder to hydraulically fracture, and it requires more horsepower."

Bowker wasn't saying that it couldn't be done (Hell, oilmen will drill under Arctic ice if the money's right). What he was saying was that it had the potential to be a real expensive pain in the ass. But with natural gas prices climbing, climbing, climbing, companies all over the Barnett were enticed a little farther out onto the ledge by the same wildcat ethos that spurred booms and busts past.

Trinity East submitted the winning bid for a swath of city acreage snaking along the Trinity River in northwest Dallas proper.

And at the outset, it got a taste of the risks inherent when it drilled two exploratory wells in Irving, on land just across Tom Braniff Drive from the University of Dallas, to test out the geology that ran through its newly acquired holdings. According to Blanton, the thread on a string of production pipe seized and the casing tore. This occurred during fracking operations, papers filed with the Texas Railroad Commission in 2010 indicate. The well was toast, along with the millions it can cost to sink a typical Barnett hole. A number of oilfield services companies filed lawsuits against Expro Exploration — Trinity East's well operator — and liens against the wells themselves for unpaid bills. The claims appear to have since been settled. Trinity East says is hasn't given up on the busted well.

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fracquestions 1 Like

Brantley, you did a pretty good job of describing the whole enchilada and detailing why TE has no legal RIGHT to drill in parks and floodplains, but you missed the one key element that set the stage and brought us to where we are today. It is important to recognize who, among us, stood up in defense of clean water, clean air, clean soil, our health, our safety, our property values

The massive efforts of key environmental leaders including Raymond Crawford, Jim Schermbeck, Molly Rooke, Rita Beving, Peter Wilson, Jenny Land, Marc McCord, Jeff Jacoby, Cherelle Blazer, and others starting in mid-2010, who had educated themselves on the legal and technical merits of the issue of urban gas drilling, were the only impediment to drilling being allowed in Dallas. Without their monumental efforts drilling would have been approved and Dallas would already be reaping the same environmental degradation, health problems and descreasing property values that our neighbors to the west are experiencing today. 1 Like

@fracquestions There are many Dallas citizens who spoke at countless planning commission hearings and city council meetings. While one or more may start the ball rolling, "it takes a village"to change their universe.

Vndallas 2 Like

jeez, fort worth has a shitty skyline.

WCGasette 4 Like

Interesting this:

[...]"They can make a profit, they say, but not if wells haven't been spudded by the expiration dates. There are ways, Blanton says, of "throttling down" production on a well, to extract less gas and wait for the prices to come back up. He knows they will. They always do. "But that's our decision," he said. "It's no one else's decision. Let us make those choices. It's not them with the money in it. It's not them with the exposure."[...]

The more we hear Mr. Blanton pontificate, the more we realize that it's quite possible he has no idea what he's talking about.  He told the Irving City Council on (March 20, 2013) during a round of questioning that the gas from the University of Dallas-City of Dallas Lease at 3400 Tom Braniff was going to the Dr. Pepper Bottling Plant in Dallas. We think maybe he is throwing up a lot of the smoke and the mirrors. 

And since when are drilled, producing wells "exploratory"?  The smell of rotten eggs is not coming from the gas.

Katarina 3 Like

Trinity East needs to diversify.  The rest of the world is going solar, and very successfully.  Since this area of the country has more than 200 sunny days a year, it's time to forget about fracturing and start building solar panels.

cjbwalton 4 Like

Great article, but may I point out one statement which I very much doubt has any basis in fact?

"Trinity East spent planning, preparing, consulting, chasing down a paper trail at the appraiser's office and leasing more than 10,000 acres of private and public land in Dallas County, from Irving to Farmers Branch — a mosaic of mineral rights in which Dallas city property was simply a large piece of a much greater whole — the figure was easily four times $19 million."

$76 million? Really? With 25 years of experience in oil and gas work, I have to wonder where that money was spent. Not into personnel with only one floor of employees. Not into title work as what could be cleaner and easier title than municipally owned minerals? Not into well site preparation, no well sites have been approved. Likely not into environmental site assessments as the possibility of drilling has never been near. Perhaps there were suhm city kickbacks, but with the frequency that Trinity East threatens litigation, I'd better not suggest that.

It sounds like they are big gamblers over at Trinity East. Not all gambles pay off - this is especially true in the oil and gas business. This was a questionable $19,000,000 gamble. At $76,000,000 it just looks like idiocy. 

By the way, if the company is out of money and experiences any more well casing failures, will they be well enough funded to handle the clean-up? 

fracquestions 1 Like

You raise a very important question - if TE does have a major problem will they be financially able to handle it, or will they simply bankrupt that small part of Keystone, walk away from the cleanup and let citizens pay for their mess?

I, too, wonder if they really have spent $76 Million because I doubt they ever had that much money available to spend, but that would depend upon how many acres of private land they leased and at what price. No doubt they spent well over $19 Mil, but $76 Mil does not sound plausible to me, either.


Trinity East is an LLC for just that reason.

cjbwalton 1 Like

Trinity East is an L.L.C. for a reason. The reason is to limit their liability.


@cjbwalton Exactly, and they will not hesitate to use that out if they deem it necessary, just like H. Ross Perot did on that $19 Million office tower he was building on Cole or Travis several years ago. Corporations are always willing to let the common people subsidize and socialize the costs of their failures.

director21 3 Like

Part 3 of 3

Trinity East gambled that they would get their permits and drill without citizen opposition. They were wrong. CEO Blanton and President Fort are both attorneys, and they are aware of the language of the leases they negotiated and signed. They KNOW that drilling is prohibited in parks and floodplains. If they chose to pay the money and risk being denied permits to drill, then they did so knowingly and with forethought of action. Their timing was very bad! They ran into an obstacle that did not block drillers in Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Mansfield, Colleyville or other places across the Barnett Shale.

Unfortunately for Trinity East, neither the City Manager nor the Mayor has the right to sign away the police powers of the City of Dallas. Sadly, our inept City Attorney, who has already tendered his resignation (or retirement, as it were) has failed to so advise the City Council and City Manager of that fact. He is up to his neck in this charade, and he is trying to save face by siding with the Mayor and City Manager. The fact is, they ran into citizen opposition that was (and still is) far more knowledgeable about this matter than they were, are or ever will be because we chose to take the time and make the effort to educate ourselves and understand the issue inside and out. THAT is the difference!

director21 4 Like

Part 2 of 3

At the time those leases were signed there was almost zero public opposition anywhere and absolutely no opposition in Dallas because we knew little or nothing about the matter. It had not even been considered. Once we heard about it a rather literate group of us formed to educate ourselves, educate our fellow citizens, educate our elected and appointed leaders and mount a formidable opposition to drilling in Dallas. Regardless of what anybody else says, we have been successful specifically because we HAVE learned the facts and we HAVE told the truth, which is much more than can be said for industry or city government officials. And, because of our knowledge and preparation we have prevailed without the benefit of funding, support or organization. Ours has been truly a grassroots campaign to defend ourselves, our fellow citizens and our city against the invasive and destructive practices of gas exploration and production in a densely populated urban area.

What started as just a few concerned citizens has grown to several hundred concerned citizens in Dallas, and now we are being joined by hundreds of concerned citizens in neighboring communities who also want to protect their environment and the health and safety of themselves and their children. Drilling in parks is insane. Drilling close to a school is unconscionable. Only people lacking integrity and humanity would even consider doing that - or allowing that!

director21 3 Like

Part 1 of 3

Great article detailing what has transpired on this issue over the past 5 years! Thanks, Brantley, for doing your homework. The key element that people need to take from this story is found on page 4, and is cited below:

"The contract said Trinity East understood that it had to get a special-use permit from the City Council to drill — a "police power that cannot be contracted away." The contract hedged the same way about drilling the Trinity River floodplain, which would first require an amendment to city ordinance. The contract Trinity East signed said, at root, that they did not have an unequivocal right to drill."

Texas law says that a person cannot legally sign away their rights under the law, even willfully. By the same token, a city cannot sign away its police powers, even if the City Manager wants to do it, and so the right of the city to establish restrictions and limitations on what a business is allowed to do within city limits is established in law, and cannot be signed away. Signing a contract that attempts to sign away the police powers of the city results in a contract that is null and void or voidable, in part or in whole, when challenged in court.