In this week's print edition, staff writer Anna Merlan provides a handy guide to natural-gas drilling debate in Dallas. Read on for a primer, a glossary of terms, a look at the opponents and supporters and a special fracking board game!
Important civic issues have a way of sneaking up on you. They do that, typically, by being so goddamned boring that you ignore them until it's impossible to do otherwise. Garbage, redistricting, municipal judge appointments: Those were just a few of the hotly debated topics that all of us did our best to avoid, right up until the point that "hotly debated" meant City Council members were yelling at each other about racism and staging dramatic walkouts. (Seriously, you should start watching the Wednesday council meetings on public access television. Better than a dozen telenovelas).
One of the longest-running debates you likely haven't been paying attention to is gas drilling within city limits. Since 2007 or so, it's been discussed in stultifying City Hall hearings, fulminated against on environmentalists' blogs and had its pros and cons weighed in newspaper articles you skipped right over in favor of reading about that teacher who had group sex with everybody.
Yes, it's unsexy. But it's here. In the coming weeks or months, Dallas City Council members will finally vote on new regulations for drilling inside the city limits. Those rules, if drilling companies and sympathetic-minded council members get their way, will allow for drilling in parkland, in the floodplains along the Trinity River and in some cases as near as 500 feet from places like houses and schools.
A growing body of scientific literature suggest that gas drilling, specifically the process of fracking (pouring millions of gallons of water and chemicals down a well to break up shale below ground and release the natural gas trapped in it) has negative effects on air quality, might contaminate groundwater, increases the numbers of small earthquakes around disposal well sites (where the waste water from fracking is deposited), and may allow you to increase the amount of tap water that you can set on fire by 100 percent.
Meanwhile, millions of dollars in city coffers suggest that drilling companies paid a lot of bucks for leases around here, and they will get mighty disgruntled and probably quite litigious if their drill bits don't end up in some soil soon. Five years ago, Dallas officials began soliciting gas drilling companies to buy leases on city-owned land; two companies, Trinity East and XTO, ended up paying around $33.7 million to purchase leases. The city also stands to receive 25 percent royalties on gas drawn by Trinity East. From XTO, they've been promised a 26 percent royalty as well as $50,000 per acre used for drilling. At the time the leases were bought, the city ordinances regulating drilling were either frighteningly lax or remarkably respectful of the power of the free market, depending on your point of view.
After some pointed grumbling from local residents who didn't necessarily want to see a drilling operation in their kids' sandbox, City Council members decided more study might be needed. They auditioned members for a task force to issue new, nonbinding recommendations on what the city's updated drilling ordinance should look like.
"We thought we were going to talk about whether drilling was safe enough to happen in an urban area," says task force member Cherelle Blazer. She's a Yale-educated scientist who heads an environmental nonprofit, You Can't Live In the Woods. "By the time I was appointed and we were briefed on what our charge was, it changed into a foregone conclusion and we were just there to decide on an ordinance."
In June of last year, Blazer joined two other members meant to represent "neighborhood and environmental interests." Three people from the gas industry were also appointed, along with three supposedly neutral "subject matter experts." The group met for more than eight months, three months longer than they'd planned. From the start, Blazer says, pressure from community groups and energy companies alike was intense. "The frequency from the activists was more, but industry was very, very persistent," she says. "Before and after each meeting, they'd tell us what our decision should be or what the ramifications of our vote that day were and tell us how they wanted us to vote." Occasionally, she says, they'd send polite emails to let the task force members know that a proposed rule was overly restrictive and "The City probably would have to go to court about that."
In the end, in a true spirit of compromise, the task force ended up with recommended rules that made both sides very grumpy. Dallas Cothrum, a zoning consultant who represents a number of energy companies, griped to the Morning News that the new rules amounted to a "moratorium" on drilling, while environmental groups said the proposed setbacks and rules for floodplains and parkland weren't strict enough. The proposed rules included a 1,000-foot setback from homes, churches, schools and retail structures. But it said the City Council should be able to grant a variance to that rule, allowing just a 500-foot setback if 12 of the 15 of them voted for it. They recommended some parkland be opened to drilling, if it's not currently being used as a public park or playground and if it's near an industrial area. And the company doing the drilling would be required to minimize "dust, vibrations and odor" from its drilling site and to prevent groundwater contamination. It would also have to bear the cost for various water sampling and monitoring equipment.
Guess what? None of it matters. The City Council is obligated to take exactly none of the task force's suggestions. They've met privately with the city attorney at least once, presumably to hash out who they'd like to be sued by the least. As we await a final set of rules -- ones which we predict will allow drilling in parks, floodplains, playgrounds and any hairdo over a certain height -- we've put together this handy board game to explain this complicated history. Gather around it with your loved ones and use it to guide you through the drilling process. Or wait six months or so and just watch it from your window.
Next up: A handy glossary to help you understand the fracking debate. Plus: Meet the players.
Fracking: A Glossary of Terms
RFP: Dallas' up-and-down love affair with drilling began in 2007, when the city put out a request for proposals (RFP) to more than 30 gas production companies across the state. City officials followed that up with phone calls and letters, making it clear that they'd really like someone to drill around here, and by the way, that a minimum bid of $4000 per acre would be required.
Representatives from the drilling companies who took the bait now say they would have never purchased the leases had they known Dallas was going to get all fuddy-duddy and start talking about safety and air quality. They seem to be worried that the city will actually make them comply with any new rules they create. Which is just adorable.
Setback: A setback is how far a drilling site can legally be from homes and businesses. Environmentalist types will tell you that 1,000 feet is the bare minimum for a setback. Drilling companies will tell you that patriotic homeowners should be allowed to climb right inside a well and start a family if they so choose. No one has done rigorous research on just how far air and water contamination can spread under different scenarios. But what we don't know can't give us cancer, right?
Floodplain: In May, green group Texas Campaign for the Environment released a map, provided by City Hall, showing where drilling company Trinity East has bought city leases. Nearly all of it is located in the floodplains along the Trinity River. Scientists warn that drilling in a floodplain would likely allow fracking chemicals to make their way into the Trinity and wash downstream. To which we say: Suck it, Houston.
Parkland: A 2008 briefing from City Hall promised there would be no drilling allowed (emphasis theirs) on the surface of city of Dallas park land. Underneath the surface, though, that would be fine. There's no joke here. That's what they wrote.
Education: The Barnett Shale Energy Education Council is collection of nice folks who only want you to have the best information about gas drilling, the kind that shows it's exceedingly, gloriously safe. The council is made up of eight energy companies who operate in the Barnett. Its ubiquitous executive director is Ed Ireland, a 20-year industry vet who's astoundingly quick with a quote or a press release and looks exactly like Lex Luthor. We expect an email from him expressing disappointment in our puerile, anti-gas humor in approximately five minutes.
Chip Groat: There are about as many dueling fracking studies as there are competing interpretations of the Bible (in ours, gay sex is actually mandatory). But the drilling industry was excited when a serious, reputable study from UT Austin concluded that fracking was unlikely to contaminate surrounding groundwater. The study was led by Charles "Chip" Groat; about five minutes after it was published, a Buffalo-based nonprofit, the Public Accountability Initiative, noted that Groat neglected to reveal his substantial financial ties to the drilling industry. Turns out he serves on the board of gas company Plains Exploration & Production. Groat subsequently told Bloomberg that he didn't alter any findings in the study, and that "disclosing my Plains board position would not have served any meaningful purpose."
Disposal Wells: The gas drilling process leaves behind several million gallons of chemical-filled water, which in turn must be disposed of somewhere. Efforts to turn it into a delicious cocktail have been unsuccessful (the name "Frack on the Beach," tragically, remains unused). Instead, the waste water is poured back into deep disposal wells, ingenious trash cans made from Mother Nature herself. According to the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, there are around 50,000 saltwater disposal wells in Texas, and "none of these disposal wells have ever had a problem with groundwater contamination." Great. What's that rumbling? Why, those are...
Earthquakes: The BSEEC will tell you that there might be some "mild" relationship between disposal wells and increased earthquake activity. Nothing definitive. Science, however, will tell you that since the '60s, there's been an acknowledged link between gas drilling and increasing numbers of small earthquakes. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Academy of Sciences found unprecedented levels of new small quakes across the country, especially in Texas, Arkansas and Ohio. However, they've never done any serious damage, and hey, haven't you always wanted to feel like you live next to the airport?
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Disclosure: Under Texas state law, gas drilling companies are required to disclose all the chemicals they use in their fracking process. Unless they deem those chemicals to be a "trade secret," of course. Also, they're only required to let you know what they've been industriously pouring in all those holes after they finish drilling. The information is presented on a government-run website that the Texas Observer once called "about as clear as a Finnish edition of Finnegan's Wake."
Water: The fracking process takes anywhere from one to five million gallons of water, depending on the size of the project. In Dallas, that water would come directly out of the municipal water supply. We still can't afford for you to water your lawn, though. Or shower. Or flush the toilet more than once every couple weeks. Don't think too hard about that one.
Inflammable: A famous set-piece from the documentary Gasland shows homeowners putting matches near their running water taps and watching as the stuff they drink goes up in flames. The Barnett Shale Energy Education Council dismisses inflammable water as the result of "naturally occurring methane gas." Gas drilling seems to have a way of bringing out water's previously undiscovered and "naturally occurring" qualities: A Duke University study last year found that methane gas levels in water wells increased to dangerous levels when they were close to natural gas wells. The methane in the water was found to be the same kind being extracted through the gas wells.
Gas Prices: Gas drilling -- everybody's doing it. A glut of natural gas on the market has led to record low prices, meaning that all the time, effort and money energy drilling companies have poured into drilling in Dallas has been totally worth it. Bright side: gas prices started to rally slightly over the summer, as the hottest year on record in the United States spurred utility companies to use more natural gas to power the nation's air conditioners. Everybody cross your sweaty fingers and wish real hard for global warming to hurry up and deliver fabulous profit to all of us!