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After Dueling Presentations, City Council Still Isn't Quite Sure What To Do About Gas Drilling

We promised you a throwdown during yesterday afternoon's gas drilling hearing before the city council, the first step towards an updated ordinance on drilling within city limits. Dallas Drilling, meanwhile, guaranteed a "smackdown." It's possible in retrospect that those were slight overstatements, designed to interest you in an issue that's as crucially important as it is incredibly boring to sit through live.

The dueling presentations the council and the audience heard amounted to a grim, four-hour slog through the same arguments that plagued the council-appointed gas drilling task force for months. Should the council allow drilling in the city's parkland or floodplains? How many feet of setbacks should separate drilling operations from businesses and homes? Is fracking even safe? Who the hell knows?

In the end, the main takeaway from the briefing was a look at who on the council is for drilling and who's not: Scott Griggs, Angela Hunt and Sandy Greyson seem to fall pretty firmly in the "anti" camp, while Sheffie Kadane and Jerry Allen were fracking's most enthusiastic cheerleaders. Davis and Atkins still seemed somewhat undecided (though he's said previously he supports drilling), and most everyone else stayed mute. With a bit of caution, Mayor Mike Rawlings also appears to be on board.

As we mentioned yesterday, bickering broke out even before the two sides set foot in the council chambers but once they did, things were relatively tame.

Former gas drilling task force member and local attorney Terry Welch suggested a 1500-foot setback on any drilling operation, with a possibility to get a variance to 1,000 feet or so with a special permit from the council. He warned that most companies would probably request the variances, saying that's been true in "80 percent" of the drilling applications in Flower Mound. He said drilling operations there have negatively impacted property values, according to a study released in mid-March.

Welch also pointed out that there's no scientific consensus yet on whether fracking is actually a public health risk. Instead, both sides can point to studies with the conclusions they like best. (Fracking studies sort of resemble religion that way.)

"Scholars and scientists in this area of study have differing opinions," Welch said. "I don't know what the absolute truth is. No one does."

For that reason, he added, the council should err on the side of caution: don't allow drilling in floodplains, for example, which tend to, you know, flood. In fact, he said, he'd discourage any development in those areas. "We shouldn't build homes, schools, or hospitals" there, he said. "Quite frankly, I don't believe we should put an industrial activity like gas drilling in the floodplain either."

Parks also need to be dealt with carefully, he said. The task force agreed on six recommendations for drilling there, including making sure the park is not currently in use, that it's not an environmentally sensitive area, and that any would-be drillers will have to obtain special use permits (SUPs) that would require a "Yea" vote from three-quarters of the council.

"I would suggest to you that park land is valuable," he said. "It's a limited public commodity. If drilling is allowed in a public park, that area will be diminished, possibly for decades."

"We always have the ability to go back and amend our ordinances," Welch said. "But if we enact weaker provisions, it's just too late. There's nothing we can do when that pad site is there next to my home. It's there, and it's gonna be there for many years."

"A world-class city," he added, "Deserves a world-class ordinance." That brought a prolonged standing ovation from the audience.

But Kadane and Allen were skeptical, with Kadane suggesting that restrictions on drilling were depriving the drilling companies of their "constitutional rights." He said a 600-foot setback seemed more than adequate.

"Anything more than that to me tries to put a moratorium on drilling," he said. "Which I don't think we have the right to do because of property rights."

Allen suggested that drilling was far less dangerous than secondhand smoke, chemicals in the home, or the hazardous materials that go barreling down Dallas's freeways each day as they're shipped to other places. He'd Googled the safety record of gas pipelines as a comparison, he said.

"Two million miles of pipelines, and just 15 deaths," he said. "To me that was a small number."

"As long as you're not one of the 15," Welch replied dryly.

"The reality is we accepted $34.8 million," Allen said, from two drilling companies who bought leasing rights from the city back in 2007. "At the end of the day, there's 11 districts that are sit around this horseshoe whose entire residential property values do not equate to $34.8 million."

"In my heart of hearts," he added, referring to additional restrictions, "I truly believe this is nothing but a death sentence."

After a bit more discussion from the council, Ed Ireland gave the opposing presentation; he's the executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a gas-industry backed group. He disputed that there were any safety issues with drilling and called some of the task force's recommendations "overly restrictive."

Where Welch focused on health and safety risks, Ireland focused on revenue: he used Fort Worth as his example, where he said 110,000 jobs had been created from drilling, with $11 billion per year in "economic stimulus" and $730 million in revenues to the city government. At that point, a lady in the audience started silently waving a pink sign that read "People over Profit." She was gently marched up the aisle and out the door by a security guard, displaying the sign for the crowd as she went.

Unperturbed, Ireland said "private property rights must be respected" with regard to the landowners who would like to sell their mineral rights. He said imposing stricter setbacks would be "confiscatory," in that it would "confiscate the property rights of mineral owners."

The requirements aren't just onerous, he said. "They're unachievable."

"The data does not support extending setbacks greater than 600 feet from a wellhead," Ireland ultimately said. He pointed to a study from last year that found no serious air emissions from fracking, and said any damage to property values would only affect more expensive homes. As for drilling in the floodplains: "It's nothing new." Existing wells in plains near Fort Worth have showed "no impacts on water or floodways," he said.

Ireland also claimed that most drilling sites are unobtrusive, showing off some pictures of a pretty, tree-lined pad site, one that sits next door to a church, some shops, and a sports field. The facilities blend in so well, he said, that when he takes clients around on tours of Fort Worth, "I usually have to point out where these natural gas facilities are." Later, in response to questions from Sandy Greyson, he allowed that planting trees or putting up fences to hide the operations isn't required by law.

He also disputed a contention from Angela Hunt that drilling companies don't disclose the chemicals they use. Ireland pointed out correctly that a law passed in the last legislative session requires companies to disclose their chemical makeup (although they can still withhold the ingredients they consider "trade secrets," and critics have called the mandatory disclosure website nearly impossible to interpret.)

Hunt pressed him on whether he'd be comfortable with the city of Dallas requiring gas companies to disclose all of their chemicals, even the trade secret ones.

Of course, Ireland replied, with one exception: when the companies hire outside contractors, they might not know all the chemicals the contractors use. "So they can't disclose, because they don't know what it is," he explained.

A moment later, Griggs asked him whether he agreed that "the jury is still out" on the health effects of fracking chemicals.

"I think the studies that have been done and the data is clear," Ireland replied. "The process is safe." There's some disagreement, he allowed, "But the studies I've seen and look at the credibility of, and the track record of the gas industry and shale gas specifically, have shown that it's very safe."

Again, Allen and Kadane chimed in with their support for drilling. "Once it's set up and it's stationary, they camouflage it," Kadane said. "You don't hardly know it's there. It's not like a rock-crushing facility. It's not that bad."

Rawlings too had a few questions about safety and property values for Ireland. But he wasn't shy about making his views known: companies should disclose their chemicals because they "aren't that bad," and keeping them secret leads the public to assume otherwise.

"The industry is doing itself a disservice," he said.

In the end, Rawlings added, "I am pro-natural gas. We have to have cleaner air, and natural gas is one solution." But neighborhood and safety issues are important, too, he said, and "it's critical that we go through this process."

The council will meet again in close session August 15 to hear from the city attorney's office about the myriad legal issues they're facing with regard to drilling.


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