Many of them attend Gateway Church, an architectural marvel more cavernous concert hall than house of worship. The church moved into its new home a year ago, and until recently it planned to sell its old, more modest digs to professional polemicist Glenn Beck. Before changing his mind last week, Beck had handpicked Southlake as his new studio headquarters.
On weekday afternoons, young mothers can be seen parking luxury SUVs along the spotless, upscale Town Square, Southlake's crown jewel, built in 1999 as an exemplar of "new urbanism." They push strollers past City Hall, a stately red-brick structure with soaring Ionic columns, flanked by stores in the old downtown style. But instead of a ma-and-pa grocer or an independent book store, there's Williams-Sonoma, Eddie Bauer, American Eagle and the Gap. When finished strolling, the moms may sit at a park bench at Town Square's center and look out over the flowers, trees, manicured hedges and three fountains. (In the interest of conservation, a sign there announces, one of the fountains has been shut off.)
The town's residents take comfort in the knowledge that not much happens here. The last murder occurred more than a decade ago. A heated item on the city council agenda might revolve around the planting of trees and flowers in the median of the main promenade.
This, in essence, is Southlake.
Or at least it was, before the land men arrived in 2008. That's when land owners big and small were presented with checks for as much as $20,000 per acre, in exchange for the opportunity to drill deep into the heart of the Barnett Shale's sweet spot. They were after natural gas, which at the time was selling at the high price of $14 per million British Thermal Units (BTU). Through a controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, millions of gallons of water laced with sand and hazardous industrial chemicals would be injected into well bores sunk deep below Southlake at pressures of up to 5,000 pounds per square inch, in order to break the rock and release the gas, mostly methane, from its pores and interstices. Combined with horizontal drilling techniques that can extend a wellbore laterally for thousands of feet, it turned a once unprofitable resource into a promising source of energy — one that could even unseat coal as the king of power generation, it's been suggested. Energy companies like Devon and Chesapeake and ExxonMobil were buying up all the leases they could, literally going door to door and inviting residents to signing parties. Southlake, residents were discovering, sat at the epicenter of Texas' newest boom.
Before long, everyone assumed natural gas royalties would inundate school district and city coffers, along with the already well-padded pockets of townspeople. This was, without doubt, the biggest thing to ever happen to Southlake.
Once placid, sparsely attended city council meetings yielded to a packed house. Neighbors took to the podium and argued, often bitterly, for and against drilling. The debate exposed fault lines, often between old Southlake, whose landowning members could remember a country town predating the wealthy bedroom community it had become, and the newly arrived nouveau riche, who had young children and were frightened by the specter of poisoned air, well blowouts and flammable tap water, and who would stop at nothing to see the drillers' advance halted at the city limits sign. Money and fear, not abstract, drill-baby-drill political ideology or staunch environmentalism, were the very tangible currencies of this debate.
Southlake was grappling with what cities all around DFW have been grappling with: how to manage a play that would bring the sights and sounds of heavy industry out of the pastures and rural towns and into its suburban backyards and school playgrounds. As the debate forged ahead, derricks rose and fell from the skylines of towns all around Southlake — a small clearing in the heart of a vast forest of rigs. Almost a decade into a modern gold rush, and not a single well was spudded within its borders. The big question was, when the town finally made up its mind, would the derrick lights shine over Southlake?
Kim Davis lives with her husband and three children in a spacious, red-brick house at the end of a cul de sac in Southlake's ritzy Timarron development. Practically everybody knows everybody here, and she doesn't mind if her neighbors scold her kids if they get out of line. The women here often get together to play bunco in each other's living rooms and tennis at the country club, which is just down the road and whose luscious golf course was designed by PGA great Byron Nelson.
The Davises moved here seven years ago from another place that might have been on Beck's shortlist: Orange County, California. They loved the fact that they could look out from the backyard and see rolling green pasture and grazing cattle. This was their own little slice of heaven at the end of a quiet street in a quiet town, where the only real racket comes from the $15 million, state-of-the-art Dragon Stadium during football season.
Davis has clear green eyes, softly highlighted, shoulder-length hair and a delicate voice. On a November morning, she sits at her dining room table, sipping iced tea as her maid vacuums in the next room. Her husband, who leases commercial trucks, is at work, her children in school.
It was in early 2008 that someone at the Timarron Homeowner's Association presented her with a lease agreement it had negotiated with XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, then emerging as one of the Barnett Shale's big players. XTO planned to sink a well in the pasture framed by her back window. Whether or not they signed, she remembers being told, XTO was going to drill. Her family might as well benefit. They agreed to the terms and accepted a check for close to 10 grand without reservation. Texas' own Tommy Lee Jones had exhorted them in gravelly tones to "get behind the Barnett Shale" in a Chesapeake Energy spot. How controversial could it be?
Two years passed without incident, and without drilling. In the summer of 2010, she and her husband were relaxing on the couch when they came across Gasland, the documentary that brought fracking into the public consciousness. They stopped surfing and settled in. She listened to residents of Pennsylvania towns on the Marcellus Shale complain of health problems they believed were caused by well water contaminated by fracking. She watched a Colorado man ignite his tap water with a cigarette lighter. And she thought, How awful. But the lifelong, card-carrying Republican was suspicious, too. "I thought it had to have some sort of liberal agenda," she says. Once the credits rolled, she didn't lose much sleep.
Soon, though, she got a call from a neighbor. XTO planned to drill its well 1,200 feet from her back door, the neighbor said, with a 3-acre pad site to accommodate 21 wellheads. Suddenly, the abstraction of a well somewhere out in that pasture became concrete. Soon she was searching the Internet and reading everything she could find on fracking.
"I read about Dish, Texas," she says, referring to the heavily drilled North Texas town that renamed itself for free satellite TV. The town's mayor fled because of health concerns he blamed on natural gas drilling. "And in Flower Mound they have a cancer cluster, but no one could prove it was because of the gas companies. I read about kids, and they had drilling sites next to schools, and the kids were having nosebleeds when they practiced outside for band."
She also read a study commissioned by the City of Southlake to evaluate the potential danger posed by a battery of ethanol, gasoline and diesel tanks just a few hundred feet from the proposed pad site, where land would be graded and a layer of gravel would be laid down. Her heart sank when she saw a satellite photo of the proposed site: Her home was within one of the concentric rings of a dispersion model predicting the spread of combustible gas in the event of a blowout.
She met Sharon Wilson, a blogger, outspoken critic of the industry and regional organizer for environmental group Earthworks. She met Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman, who told her his story face to face.
Now she was losing sleep, though it seemed for a time like she was the only one. She phoned a friend and wept. It was like nobody in Southlake knew what was going on, and if they did, they didn't seem to care. Or worse, she thought, they wanted the drilling.
"You find out that there are people whose kids your kids go to school with, and they're for it. There's just not enough information out there to decide if it's safe or not safe, so why would you take a chance with my family?" she says. "Whose child has to get sick?"
She fired off an email to friends, asking them to show up at city council. "I wasn't saying, 'Hey, this is bad and we need to stop it.' It was just, 'Hey, guys, let's pay attention. This is going up right outside of Timarron.'"
The email was forwarded to others and was eventually circulated widely. Missives in support of drilling began piling up in her inbox, sent to city council members but pointedly CCing Davis. A few days later, she received a call from a man who sounded like he was trying to disguise his voice. "I know what you're doing," she claims he said, "and you're going to regret it."
Undeterred, she began showing up and speaking at any public meeting where the subject might come up. She wrote impassioned letters to council members, sharing the results of the research she did after tucking her children into bed. She printed dozens of copies of city council public comment forms and distributed them to girlfriends and stay-at-home moms who shared her fears. She also met opponents of another proposed drilling site in Southlake. An organized, grassroots opposition coalesced.
Meanwhile, something was changing in Davis.
"I used to get really angry when I'd listen to politics and I'd be like 'These liberals!'" she says. "And I always went into whatever it was from a political standpoint, whether it was the budget or tax cuts. I really looked at it in black and white, and now I'm looking at it all differently. I'm not so quick to judge something. I want to take time to research it."
But Davis could also sense that something in Southlake had been fundamentally altered. The town was shot through with a tense undercurrent, and one topic in particular was practically verboten in polite conversation.
"It's one of those things like abortion," she says. "You can talk to people about it if you know they feel the same way, but you're not gonna go out of your way to talk to people about it if you don't know where they stand."
The atmosphere in Southlake had grown acidic. Pro-drillers, as she refers to them — or old Southlake, as it were — liked to paint her and others as carpetbagging environmentalists. Davis, a native Texan, bristled every time. Because for her, it wasn't about some overriding concern for the environment, or an inchoate hostility toward the industry. It was her kids. Every time she looked for answers, she was left with only more questions.
"I think I'm always gonna worry a little bit, like a mom worries about her kids when they leave the house," she says. "What is it that we don't know? Here are all the things we do know and we've covered those. But what about what we don't know?"
As late as 2007, analysts assumed that the United States would become increasingly dependent on liquefied natural gas imports from the Middle East. We knew the shale gas was there, but tapping it just wasn't commercially feasible.
Today, the United States is nearly self-sufficient in that regard. Shale gas is being groomed as the "bridge" fuel to the future — a plentiful, low-carbon, cleaner-burning alternative to coal. Nationally, shale gas production sprang from virtually zero in 2000 to 10 billion cubic feet per day in 2010. Geologists estimate there's 30 trillion cubic feet trapped in the Barnett Shale alone.
John Deutch, an MIT professor and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee, has called the turn of events "perhaps the biggest shift in energy-reserve estimates in the last half century." ConocoPhillips CEO Jim Mulva told a Detroit audience in September that his company had quadrupled its investment in gas this year to $2 billion. President Barack Obama declared in March that there could be enough shale gas beneath American soil to last a century. And Governor Rick Perry has repeatedly called for the deregulation of the industry, arguing that dismantling pesky protections will spark the creation of more jobs.
But as gas wells proliferated on the Barnett Shale and elsewhere, so too did environmental and health complaints, along with a host of often contradictory research about its impacts. A 2004 EPA study seemed to absolve the industry of contaminating groundwater supplies with fracking fluid, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may contain 15,000 gallons of chemicals for every three million gallon well stimulation. In response, Congress exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. But buried deep within the nearly 400-page study was an admission that fracking fluids had traveled hundreds of feet beyond the point of injection. Legislators also missed the not-so-fine print: That the study pertained to hydraulic fracturing in coal beds, not shale.
An MIT study, funded in part by the industry, found 43 incidents of documented groundwater contamination, much of it by methane or surface spills of brine and fracking fluid, which are pumped out and produced along with the gas. It identified no instances where the fracking process itself contaminated groundwater.
In a preliminary report released this month, researchers from the University of Texas Energy Institute reached a similar conclusion — that it is unlikely that fracking fluid injected more than a mile beneath the surface will intermingle with the fresh water found at less than a thousand feet. But its lead researcher, Dr. Chip Groat, conceded that it's possible, in a state with as many old oil and gas wells as Texas, that fracking fluid could migrate from the fracture zone into a well with a bad cement job or damaged casing and wind up seeping into groundwater supplies. There are still reams of data from the Texas Railroad Commission his team has yet to pore through, he cautioned.
A 1987 EPA study, unearthed in August by The New York Times, documented just the sort of groundwater contamination Groat had warned of. Fracking fluid had found its way into an abandoned well and into a West Virginia man's water well, the agency found. The lead researcher said she believed there were dozens of similar cases, but settlements paid by the industry, accompanied with confidentiality agreements, prevented her team from learning more.
The EPA has since undertaken a massive study, to be released next year, to determine the risk fracking poses to water supplies. Claims of contamination in the Barnett Shale will be one of its focuses. So far, there is no last word on the subject.
Nor is there much consensus on how the practice affects air quality.
According to researchers at Cornell University, fugitive emissions of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, are released at every step in the process, from drilling to storage to its conveyance through pipelines and compressor stations. And a 2009 study conducted by regional EPA administrator Al Armendariz, then at Southern Methodist University, suggested that smog-forming emissions from oil and gas production in the DFW area were greater than those produced by cars and trucks. But a study commissioned by the City of Fort Worth found that emissions from natural gas production didn't pose an immediate health hazard to residents.
Mothers like Kim Davis, then, can be forgiven if they have difficulty finding concrete answers to the questions that keep them up at night. It's their concerns, the anxiety they feel as they frantically download dense PDFs from every corner of the internet, that have brought the outcry over drilling from a murmur to a din as the Barnett Shale play moves from the ranches and single-stoplight towns into the cities and suburbs. Washington's business-centric rush toward "energy independence" has collided headlong with Main Street — especially in towns like Southlake, where parents worry not about job creation or Middle Eastern leverage but about the future and their health and, more than any of that, their children.
Gordon Aalund is an ER doctor at Baylor Grapevine Hospital with a night-shift tan, thick spectacles and a shock of ginger hair. He lives in a brick house cluttered with children's toys in the Whites Chapel neighborhood, a stone's throw from the Milner Ranch, the only drilling site ever approved by the Southlake city council before court orders and moratoriums tied it up. He says he bought the house a few months after the Milners — a landowning, longtime Southlake family — hosted a backyard barbecue lease-signing party.
By the time XTO came back around to clean up its leases, the price of gas had taken a nosedive and Aalund was offered $5,000 an acre, a fraction of what many of his neighbors got. He signed, but he worried when he heard XTO was asking the city council for variances on gas venting and reduced "setbacks," the distance between wells and homes or other buildings.
He began attending city council meetings, where he met like-minded residents, including Kim Davis. And he discovered the curious thing about the divide opening in Southlake: It knew no political ideology. It's a quirk that polarizing issues take on when they cease being talking points. Unlike Davis, Aalund describes himself as center-left on environmental and social issues. But he came to the debate looking at fracking through the eyes of a physician.
"People think we figured out cigarettes cause cancer because we did a study and said, 'Oh shit, this causes cancer!' No, that's not how we figured it out. Forty years later, when we saw all these people getting lung cancer, that's when we got the information," he says. "Do you want to be in the test group or the control group? I want to be in the control group that wasn't exposed to elevated levels of benzene while gas drilling was going on near my house.
"The reality is it doesn't make sense to take those risks. We don't need the gas like that. We don't need the money like that. I can live without gas, and I can live without gas royalties, but I can't live without clean air, clean water and my health and my kids' health."
At the same meetings, he came across Zena Rucker. The frail but fiery octogenarian describes herself as environmentally conscientious as any Southlake resident. She isn't some armchair treehugger who waxes green then hops into a Chevy Tahoe, either. As far as she knows, she's the only person in Southlake with a solar array capable of powering her rambling, vaguely neo-Mediterranean-style home. She recycles. She composts. She protested with all the other flower children during Vietnam. She's been a Tarrant County Democratic Party precinct chair for years. "I drive a Prius," she adds.
And she wants very much for the energy companies to start drilling.
"They're not worried about the environment," she says of drilling opponents, who she claims are "all Republicans." "That's an excuse. [The companies] are making drilling as safe as they can make it. The people here who don't have mineral rights are the ones totally against it, because Southlake has this attitude of, 'If I can't have it, you can't either.' Or, 'Not in my backyard.' They're very self-obsessed people."
Rucker is one of the largest landowners in Southlake, with 75 acres in the heart of the city. She and her late husband, an airline pilot she met when she was a stewardess, bought the gorgeous spread, with its old-growth trees and green pastures stretching far into the distance, back when Southlake was an unincorporated hamlet populated with Baptist farmers.
Southlake has changed a lot since then, and not for the better, as far as Rucker is concerned. "I used to buy eggs where Town Square is now," she says. "That was an egg farm." And the fact that the energy companies she was ready to make a deal with have been held up at city council, thanks to a bunch of petty Republicans, was, in her eyes, only the latest sign Southlake was headed south.
Chesapeake Energy, a rising juggernaut in the Barnett, was the first to approach Rucker. The company let that lease expire. Then ExxonMobil-owned XTO came along, and left a check on the table for nearly $300,000 — a mere enticement for what was to come. The way she explains it, with one proposed site to the south and the Milner site to the north, their lateral fracks would be shattering shale beneath her land. They needed her.
But things quickly got complicated. The site to the south, on the sprawling property of a man named Joe Wright, was proposed to spud 1,200 feet from Kim Davis' home, as a compromise to get it farther from Grapevine High School. With its proximity to Timarron and the tanks full of combustible fuel, these safety concerns conspired to scuttle the deal.
Standing between Rucker and her new revenue stream were city council members who, amidst swirling discord in their usually tranquil town hall, were moving cautiously. The planning and zoning committee had already failed to approve the Milner site in November 2010, and in February of this year, another effort to green-light drilling at the Wright site near Davis' home failed. But the Milner proposal didn't die. In a bizarre twist that smelled of political machinations to some on the committee, the city attorney declared the failed motion insufficient. The committee, the city attorney wrote, hadn't specifically denied the application. The ruling drew a collective head scratch, but the result was clear: XTO could commence drilling the Milner site near Aalund's home.
The anti-drilling faction struck back. Aalund's newly formed group, Southlake Taxpayers Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND), took the city to court and won a temporary restraining order preventing drilling at the Milner site.
But the controversy turned out to be a moot one. Shortly after the court ruling, XTO stunned Southlake, announcing that the temporarily restrained Milner site was no longer "financially feasible." It reclaimed its six-figure check from Zena Rucker's table and pulled out of Southlake altogether. Under increasing pressure, the city extended a moratorium on new drilling permits into November while it revised the city ordinance that regulated fracking, from air quality monitoring to setbacks from public parks.
Aalund, Davis and STAND were elated. Rucker and Bob Gray, the spokesman for a pro-drilling group, said the anti-drillers and the city council had just cost Southlake and its inhabitants untold sums. Meanwhile, the mayor and city council consulted with experts, its neighbor cities and the public, attempting to learn from the mistakes made by municipalities during the heady days of a play moving into increasingly urban, uncharted territories — cities like Flower Mound, which opted for setbacks from houses of 1,500 feet, but only after dozens of wells were sunk within its borders. They used as a template Southlake's negotiations with XTO and the "laundry list" of concessions the company willingly made: Things like continuous air monitoring and pre- and post-drilling testing of all water wells within 2,000 feet. "What we tried to do," Mayor John Terrell says, "was take what they had agreed to and codify it."
On October 18, the night the city council was set to vote on the revised ordinance, the citizens of Southlake began arriving, anxious to find out what the ordinance would hold, and what it would mean for both sides. Aalund was there. So was Rucker. At the outset, the city attorney warned the council that enacting too burdensome an ordinance could amount to what's known as a "regulatory taking" — the legal term for what happens when laws prevent mineral rights owners and leaseholders from developing the natural resources beneath them. Mineral rights owners in town had threatened litigation if the council passed an ordinance containing setbacks so large that they effectively banned drilling in Southlake. But municipalities have long been given free rein to regulate themselves, and there's almost zero settled case law placing the city in danger of an unfavorable ruling. Terrell said it was a very real threat that weighed heavily in the council's deliberations. Anti-drillers characterized it as a last-minute, desperate scare tactic.
Residents for and against filed up to the podium to make their positions known, though by stalling the process and driving XTO out of town, there was the unshakable sense that Rucker and the others had already lost.
"I think the ordinance, as it's currently written, is going to kill drilling in Southlake," said Steve Oren, a composed, well-dressed elderly man.
"This could be a very important source of income for my family, my children," Jim McCutcheon said. "My real problem is the bigger picture. I've been to three of these meetings and each seems to deal with more and more restrictions."
Too much regulation here in Southlake, he continued, was simply the state of America writ small.
Disgusted with the pace of the proceedings and the lateness of the hour, Rucker stalked out before she could speak. But her comment card was eventually read aloud, and it conveyed her opposition to the proposed ordinance, which would keep the 1,000-foot setback between drilling rigs and homes, prohibit fracking during summer months due to the drought's impact on the water supply and establish a 300-foot setback from ignition sources like Joe Wright's tank farm.
She worried that if the ordinance passed, neither XTO nor Chesapeake nor any other company would return, and that the greatest resource since Spindletop struck oil would go untapped here.
As the council members entered their votes into computers, the susurrus of whispered conversations quieted. The results were transmitted to a projection screen: 7-0 in favor of added restrictions on fracking in Southlake. It was a little after 11 p.m., and the city council had just approved one of the most comprehensive drilling ordinances in North Texas. Aalund and his cohort rose and made their way outside. So did Joe Wright and Jim Milner, old-time Southlake men — good ol' boys, some in town call them — who stood the most to gain. Neither would comment. Everyone seemed weary, by the late hour and by a resource that had caused so much rancor in a town so unaccustomed to it. Neither side was sure what they'd won, or even who'd won at all.
That much wouldn't be clear for a few weeks.
The backlash from the industry didn't wait long.
"If you have to invest your millions — and we're talking tens of millions in many cases — in order to potentially be issued a permit by any city hall, they may still have the option to decline, whether through their zoning process or their special use process or whatever," says Julie Wilson, Chesapeake Energy's vice president for corporate development in the Barnett Shale. "Each city handles it a little differently. It's a pretty big risk to take if you can't meet that ordinance exactly the way it is.
"And then when you have made these investments and you're ready to move forward, and the ordinance changes, and now you can't meet the new ordinance requirement, you can see the conundrum there. You've proceeded forward in good faith thinking you were going to be allowed to develop your minerals and the ordinance changes."
The frustration in her voice was obvious, and though she tried to speak generally, it was clear she was talking about Southlake. But there is perhaps no better evidence of a suitor spurned than the industry shibboleth-laced letter she sent out to Chesapeake's Southlake lessors earlier this month:
Dear Mineral Owner:
The City of Southlake recently approved a new municipal ordinance regulating natural gas operation within the city limits. As a direct result of that ordinance, Chesapeake will not be seeking any permit approvals and will allow the last of our nearly 1,400 leases in Southlake to expire.
Although we appreciate the careful consideration given during the ordinance process, the City of Southlake placed unnecessary and restrictive conditions on doing business in their city, restrictions no other municipality has imposed.
Chesapeake has received a large number of calls from mineral owners asking if we plan to challenge the ordinance. Unfortunately, our answer is "no." With so many other attractive options in the Barnett Shale, and many cities either to work with natural gas producers to create jobs, increase tax revenues and support community development, we will simply shift our efforts elsewhere.
As shale plays in other parts of the country create a demand for our limited number of rigs, we must make difficult decisions about which areas to develop and which to forgo. On behalf of Chesapeake Energy, I am truly sorry that we don't have the opportunity to produce your minerals. We will continue to lead the path toward U.S. energy independence as we fuel the economic engine right here in North Texas.
Julie H. Wilson
It was a long way of saying: You just regulated yourselves out of the gas business. The question is whether Southlake can take at face value that assertion, that it had just denied itself a gusher of royalties that could buy new fire engines or new computers for the town's sterling schools. Or was it a low blow for the benefit of Chesapeake shareholders, dealt by a company that invested God knows how much into Southlake and got hosed not by regulations but by gas prices that had sunk as deep as the Ellenburger formation?
"I do know that many of the folks who received that letter, their leases already expired," Terrell says. "Like, a year and a half, two years ago. I'm not sure how much posturing that was versus reality."
But there was an inescapable truth in that letter: What happened at Southlake Town Hall was merely a symptom of the broader difficulties energy companies encountered as they sought to exploit shale gas in the suburbs and cities of North Texas. Instead of dealing with one or two ranchers, plus the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, they were dealing with both agencies, the ordinances of municipal governments and hundreds if not thousands of small landowners. Coupled with a glut of shale gas depressing the market, it acted to slow the breakneck pace of gas development or, in the case of Southlake, to bring it to a complete halt. Meanwhile, rig counts on the Barnett Shale have dropped to around 50, down from more than 200 in its 2008 heyday.
Given tanking gas prices and bullish oil prices and all the headaches found in the Barnett, companies have begun asking themselves: "Why even bother with towns like Southlake?"
Especially when there's a new place to go drilling. With the price of oil still edging near $100 a barrel, the oil-producing, sparsely populated Eagle Ford Shale, in South Texas, has risen to preeminence as the Texas playground. For now, the energy companies will lick their wounds, cut their losses and move south. If the price of gas bounces back, maybe one day they'll return. Maybe not. Either way, they'll do well to remember one thing, as Kim Davis put it: "You drive around Arlington and Fort Worth, and these gas wells are right next to apartments and playgrounds. It seems like when people are educated and have a little more money, they stand up."
Put another way: Welcome to Southlake.