Dallas's Gas Drilling Task Force Navigates, Sort Of, the Labyrinth of Fracking Regulations

Task force chair Lois Finkelman and members Terry Welch and Cherelle Blazer mull over fracking regulations at yesterday's meeting.
Task force chair Lois Finkelman and members Terry Welch and Cherelle Blazer mull over fracking regulations at yesterday's meeting.
Photo by Leslie Minora

The city's gas drilling task force slurped down a hearty helping of alphabet soup last night, with visits from representatives of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and the RRC (the Railroad Commission of Texas), all of whom provided a breakdown of the regulatory environment surrounding gas drilling that was nearly as confusing as informational.

Here's a taste of what the task force heard from agency representatives: The RRC handles waste issues, unless they somehow involve transportation, at which point the TCEQ steps in. For drinking water contamination, private wells fall under RRC jurisdiction, while the TCEQ handles public water. Reclaimed fracking water is a shared responsibility. And the list goes on ... makes perfect sense, right? It's no wonder task force chair Lois Finkelman joked after the meeting that she'd like to "scrap [all of the regulations] and start over" with a more concise system.

"I think the most important thing about today is the overlapping responsibilities of the governing agencies," Finkelman told Unfair Park. Now, it's the task force's job to wade through this information and determine where municipal regulation can potentially fill in the gaps and add levels of protection.

The task force also was scheduled to also hear from city of Dallas officials, but they ran out of time and will move that item to another meeting.

The EPA has "very little regulatory authority" over fracking operations, according to a representative of that agency, while the state agencies, the TCEQ and RRC, have much tighter regulations. In general, there is "much more regulatory authority over fewer items," the EPA representative said. For example, guidelines for compressor stations are much tighter than on wells (of which there are more than 400,000 in Texas), even though there are exponentially more wells with "literally thousands of connections [valves, etc.] on a site."

The TCEQ representative said the agency studies benzene levels most closely because if that is kept within established levels, other volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, will follow suit. But task force member Cherelle Blazer of environmental organization You Can't Live in the Woods took issue with his presumption. "That is the main carcinogen, that is not the main VOC," she said. "I would like to speak with you more about that."

Drilling activist Raymond Crawford called benzene the "star player in the world of contaminants," and also took issue with the TCEQ's stance. "If you don't look for something you're not going to see it," he told Unfair Park after the meeting. He worries that the TCEQ operates "with blinders on."

With a regulatory environment that is multifaceted, dense and prone to public scrutiny, the task force has a lot to consider as it gathers information needed to rewrite the city's gas drilling ordinance. Discussing regulation in general, task force member John McCall told Unfair Park after the meeting, "It's clear as mud at this point." McCall was especially surprised to learn that drilling companies are almost completely unregulated when it comes to where they're drawing the millions of gallons of fresh water used for fracking.

The next task force meeting is a public hearing on August 2 at 7 p.m. on level L1 of City Hall. Perhaps you could make it if you weren't invited to Mayor Mike's barbecue.

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