All Sides Are Pissed at City Council as Fracking Debate Comes to a Head

Over Thanksgiving weekend, the Morning News' Randy Lee Loftis posed a question we'd been wondering about ourselves: Just what the hell happened to that fracking ordinance the City Council was supposed to pass, the one that would finally and completely resolve all those unanswered questions about gas drilling within the city of Dallas?

It's been nearly four months since the council-appointed gas drilling task force delivered its recommendations and more than a year and a half since its members first started meeting. And the $34 million in leases of city land to Trinity East Energy and Exxon subsidiary XTO, which sparked the drilling debate in the first place, were signed way back in 2008.

That's more than enough time to write an ordinance, even one as complex and contentious as the gas drilling one is bound to be. But since August 1, there hasn't been a peep from City Hall. There still isn't a proposed ordinance, nor any official hint of when one might arrive.

The cloud of silence is pissing off just about everyone with skin in the fracking game. Environmental groups sent out a news release earlier today reiterating their opposition to drilling of any sort in the Trinity River floodplain. Downwinders at Risk's Jim Schermbeck called it "the largest retreat of leadership that I can ever remember on such an important public health and environmental issue," and the Texas Campaign for the Environment's Zac Trahan referring to it as a "complete and utter dereliction of duty."

Drilling companies are no happier. Steve Fort, a manager of Trinity East, said the company has been waiting for the city's decision on its application for a specific use permit, which has been on hold for 18 months. "We're at the city's mercy," he said. XTO spokesman Jeffrey Neu expressed similar sentiments to Loftis, indicating that the company's patience is wearing thin. A third player, Chief Oil & Gas, allowed its leases on private land to expire when it became clear the city was stalling.

City Hall, of course, hasn't been sitting around doing nothing about fracking, judging by several closed-door legal briefing they've had and the letter sent by the city attorney's office two weeks ago asking drilling companies to tell the city if they still plan to drill. That prompted XTO to file for a handful SUPs that would allow them to drill their lease at Hensley Field near Grand Prairie. And those applications have been put on the fast track, with Plan Commission hearings scheduled for December and consideration before the full council in January.

Why the sudden rush? For one, XTO's lease will expire unless the company begins drilling and producing royalties for the city by October 13, 2013. The city could grant an extension to avoid the lawsuit that would inevitably result if XTO were not allowed to drill, or it could go ahead and grant the permits. Natural gas prices are at rock bottom and there is little incentive to launch a multimillion dollar drilling operation right now. It seems that we'll know very soon how things will play out.

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