For Trinity East, the Fort Worth-based shale gas producer, the Dallas Plan Commission meeting this Thursday is make or break. Nearly six years ago, the company bid on drilling city-owned land while Dallas sought to shore up a budget shortfall. Since then, the company shelled out tens of millions of dollars to lease city acreage; natural gas prices entered free fall; a drilling task force convened to recommend a tougher fracking ordinance; opposition stiffened; and the proposed wells (along with City Manager Mary Suhm) became embroiled in controversy over, among other things, a parkland tract that found its way into the lease, even though City Council said it didn't want it.
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If bargain gas prices haven't deterred Trinity East, municipal gridlock might. But that all depends, to a large degree, on what happens at the Plan Commission, a deliberative body that doesn't usually take up matters more controversial than a replat.
Last December, the Plan Commission voted 7-5 (with two members absent) against approval for Trinity East's drill site specific-use permits. Commissioners by and large felt uncomfortable recommending drill sites on land technically zoned parkland without the state-mandated hearing at the City Council, or on a floodplain, which would first require an amendment to city ordinance.
A denial at the Plan Commission level meant the council would need a supermajority to approve the permits. It would take only four council members to shut it down. Mayor Mike Rawlings publicly fretted over the potential for litigation, particularly after Suhm had already promised to assist Trinity East in securing permits to drill.
Not long after the denial, Plan Commission Chairman Joe Alcantar brought the permits back for reconsideration, prompting noisy protests from drilling opponents and a walk-out by the commissioners. This Thursday, the Plan Commission votes again, presumably with Liz Wally and John Shellene, who didn't vote at the December meeting, in attendance. Even if they vote to approve, that leaves the commission deadlocked. Unless, that is, a commissioner's had a change of heart during the last three months. If not, the road to city council approval for Trinity East's SUPs is steep.