As City's Gas Drilling Task Force Crawls to Finish Line, a Q&A With the Woman in Charge

The most recent Dallas gas drilling task force meeting ended with mutterings of how to speed up the process of drafting drilling ordinance recommendations. Several task force members voiced concerns that they were crawling toward the finish line -- even after the task force's schedule for deliberation was extended by a month, until late December, with upcoming meetings expected to last later than the scheduled 4:30 p.m. ending.

"We're moving very slowly. We're being deliberate, which is good. I'm just wondering if there's a modification to the process ... just to try to expedite things," task force member Ramone Alvarez politely suggested, adding that perhaps they could find a way to focus more time on items that they don't agree on, rather than slowly working through each issue.

Lengthy conversations with hardly any concrete decisions consumed the past two weeks of task force deliberation, which followed an educational process that began in July.

Task force chair Lois Finkelman said that she personally combed through the document compiled by city staff that compares the ordinances of nearby cities, and checked off items she thought should be included in the Dallas ordinance -- a gesture that made a dense comparative document more digestible.

"You're the chair, and I think the chair has some special powers," Alvarez told her, suggesting that it might expedite the process if Finkelman compiled her own recommendations into a document for the task force to review, accepting the items unanimously agreed upon and debating and voting on others before submitting their final recommendations to city council.

At next week's meeting, the task force will use Finkelman's document as a jumping-off point. In advance of the upcoming recommendations, Unfair Park caught up with Finkelman for a Q&A about the group's charge and the challenges in developing an ordinance governing a complex, tricky and controversial issue.

Do you think another month is long enough to complete the task force recommendations?

I think it's going to be a real challenge. But I also think that this is one of those discussions that, it could take six more months and I'm not sure that that's necessarily advantageous to the city. I tend to think that we need to wrap this as responsibly as we can in a reasonable amount of time, and then ultimately the final decisions will come through the council process.

I have mixed feelings about the task force deciding they want me to put together a draft [to consolidate information and expedite the process]. I kind of wish that we'd come up with something other than that. But I understand everybody's frustration at the volume of materials and items that we were trying to decide on.

It seems like it's been almost paralyzing the last two weeks.

I think last week it was pretty easy. Apparently not everybody did what I had done [went through and marked best parts of other ordinances]. So, having a draft for people to work off of a single [document] probably in the long-run will move us forward more quickly. I think we will end up voting on some things, and if there's a minority opinion, we'll make sure that goes forward, so it's clear to council that there was a difference of opinion.

That was one of my reasons for wanting to do a pretty thorough education process. So that everybody would have heard the same things at the same time ... at least we all had a common background of knowledge when we started the actual conversation.

What's the biggest challenge the task force has faced so far? I think the biggest challenge has always been getting our hands around all of the many issues involved in setting up a process for gas drilling. The task force isn't charged with making the decision as to whether or not to drill in the city or not. That's ultimately a council prerogative. So it's a case of how do you deal with all of these issues, what is the right recommendation to make.

When you say it's a council prerogative whether or not to drill, would that be a recommendation you would make either way? I don't think that's in the task force purview. I think our charge is to come up with a set of recommendations to the ordinance ... if we drill, then this, whereas they decide whether or not to drill. In a sense, by signing leases already, a council has made the decision already that they would potentially allow it in the city. So that decision's kind of been made.

Ultimately, it's going to go through the council process, and it could come out looking very very different, either stronger, or potentially weaker. There just isn't any guarantee. I think the task force has been very responsible in terms of taking the time to learn the issues. I would hope they would put significant weight on the recommendations that come from the task force. But that doesn't mean that they won't make changes, that there won't be somebody on the council who decides there's a better way of doing it or something that they'd like to see that wasn't included. And that's okay, that's the political process.

Have you received phone calls from council members? I've had some brief conversations with a number of council members, most of whom have not indicated support or opposition to things. I've had further involvement from maybe a single council member who has some strong feelings about how the process ought to go. I've tried to do my best to not engage the council.

Who is that council member? That's not relevant because the council's going to have their own shot at it. And the task force process really needs to be separate and uncompromised. That's my perspective. So, influences, either for or against anything from a council member or representatives of a council member, are something that I've tried to kind of not ...

So you hear them out, and ... I don't mind having a conversation with anybody, but it's not going to influence what comes from the task force.

Is it tricky as a former council member to head the independent task force? I think it gives me kind of a better understanding of how the process works. I have great respect for those who sit on the council. It's not an easy job. It's a thankless task most of the time; it's often you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. You can't make everybody happy; so you've got to make somebody unhappy in the process. I think for the most part, council has been pretty respectful of the task force process as a separate process. I think most of the council members kind of respect it.

Do the current leases within the city complicate anything for the task force? In the long run probably not, because we knew there were leases going in, and if [gas companies] applied for a permit under that lease, they were subject to the existing laws. If our recommendations were at the table and the council had accepted them, there might be some ability for some political negotiating ... but I think that would have to have been voluntary.You just can't change the ground-rules once something's started. You can ask people to abide by changes, and in many cases they do.

How do you personally feel about drilling? I think my personal feelings are probably not relevant. I think it's challenging. I think it's very, very challenging. There are certainly examples of cities that have had urban drilling for decades, like Los Angeles, places like UT Arlington that have it on campus and it seems to work. And there are certainly lots of examples of places, not necessarily urban, where there are issues, whether it's noise, or traffic, or water contamination, or any of the other associated issues.

Do you think drilling can be done responsibly in Dallas? I think the task force is going to hopefully figure out whether or not they think it can. I think the answer is probably: that appears to be the case if you look at other examples. Are there things that we can do that maybe some other communities haven't done? Yeah, probably.

Do you live on the Barnett Shale? Does it affect you? No, it doesn't affect me. I think that someone said, "ell, we're not going to have very many wells in the city', which is probably true, because the Barnett Shale doesn't extend very far into the city limits, but if you have even one well, you've got to make sure that you've done whatever you can do to ensure the fact that it is operated in a safe and responsible manner with minimal negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

What do you expect will be the biggest point of contention among task force members? An acceptable set-back from residential uses, I think, will, I don't know that it will be contentious. I think that will certainly be a topic for discussion. I think one of the questions that we haven't spent a lot of time talking about is the potential of either having or not having injection wells for produced water in the city. I think that's a big issue.

What do you think is the best policy for injection wells? I'm not going to jump in front of the task force's recommendations. So I don't want my opinions out there in print at this time. The issue with injection wells is, some would say, the trade-off between all the traffic that bringing in fluid and taking fluid out means in terms of truck traffic as opposed to putting in an injection well so you don't have to truck it in and out of city limits. On the other hand, injection wells certainly have issues ... that are questionable.

When it comes to set-back distances from a well to a protected land use, is there a range that you think set-backs should fall into, if not a definite number? What about the recommendation of 3,000 feet sent to the task force and council by citizen activists? I think the problem with 3,000 feet may well be that it would preclude drilling at some of the sites that have already been identified [by current leases]. I think that would be an issue ... maybe at Hensley Field.

So the task force will keep set-back recommendations within distances determined by prospective drill sites? Not from the standpoint of our recommendation necessarily because that site already has a lease.

You mentioned that those sites are grandfathered in under the old rules, so would that matter at all in the context of recommendations? It's not clear. That's a city attorney question, and that's one of those things that, you know, the city attorney's in an awkward position because they represent the city and the city council. Because we don't have any official standing, they have to be careful about not giving us legal advice, so it's kind of a dance we play ...

Why are city attorneys at the meetings? They've provided some really good support and help, and there are some things they can help us with, but they can't actually tell us, "Well, if you do that, you're going to get sued, and this is how we'd have to respond to it'. Those are discussions that will take place in executive sessions of the council.

So why is it important now whether recommended set-back distances affect the Hensley Field site or other sites? It may well be that the task force says, "Yeah, that makes sense, and if you can't find a spot, you can't find a spot." I think there are discussions about zoning -- do you limit it by zoning category, which the current ordinance does not.

You mean that it has to be in an industrial area ... Is that one way to deal with it that would protect neighborhoods and yet still allow it? I think that that's a possibility; we haven't spent any time talking about it.

What do you think is the biggest environmental issue faced by Dallas? Is this it? I think ... it's air quality. We haven't had a good handle on it. I don't think the state's been as aggressive in addressing air quality issues as they should have been. Certainly, the additional pollution that comes from drilling rigs adds to the issue -- it's not the cause by any stretch of the imagination; we've been in trouble for a long time -- and I don't know that we've got the answers yet as to how best to fix it. And certainly the increased population adds to it.

When it comes to drilling, what are the easiest regulations to put in place to limit the impact on air quality? I think green completion is probably critical. I think the question of whether we allow compressor stations in the city or not is a decision.

Will the task force be giving recommendation about site inspectors as well? We will certainly make recommendations with respect to monitoring and enforcement. I think one of the conversations we had last week was how often does the TCEQ inspector go out? And the answer is when there are complaints. So the question is could the city put itself in the position where it had inspectors that inspected the wells on a regular basis? And could the city give their inspectors the mobile equipment to do so in a way that made it effective? Is there a way to build into the ordinance the financial resources that allow that to happen? Because that's always the issue. If that's going to happen, ideally it would be self-funded through the ordinance and permitting process, so the industry would ultimately be funding that.

Since several nearby cities have updated their ordinances over the years, would you recommend that the Dallas ordinance remain flexible? Absolutely. I anticipate that there will be unanimity with that. This needs to be a flexible document, and the council needs to review it on a regular basis for any changes in the industry. I think the technology continues to change. There are any number of studies going on out there that the result of some of those studies may give us some definitive scientific information, and if so, you want to be able to incorporate that into the ordinance. Somehow it needs to get written into the ordinance so it's very clear that the city has the ability to go back and amend.

Is there any thing else you think people should know about? I think one of the issues that you didn't ask me about ... is the economics, whether it's an economic benefit to the city or whether or not a given well is economically viable -- whether companies are inflating the amount of gas in the well or not.

And on a personal level, I think that's a dangerous thing from the standpoint of, when a council zones a property or allows a grocery store or an apartment complex to be built, they don't typically look at the demographics of the market, determine whether or not it's economically viable -- if Walmart says, "I want that corner for a Wal-Mart," the council will decide whether or not they want a Walmart, not whether the Wal-Mart's going to be successful or not. That's the private sector's responsibility, not the public sector's responsibility ... It's another balance. Isn't life interesting?

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