It was Dallas city council member Tennell Atkins who, during yesterday's discussion of the city's still-far-off gas-drilling regulations, posed the million-dollar question. "Do you think that it's safe to drill in the city of Dallas?" he asked task force chair Lois Finkelman.
Finkelman was noncommittal. That left others to speak up for the money, and the same old characters to speak up on behalf of the environment.
The task force is charged with making recommendations for a new gas-drilling ordinance that balances environmental concerns with financial ones. The group's current recommendations include 1,000-foot setbacks, land use restrictions and notification requirements, and they require gas companies to obtain a zoning permit that's subject to council approval and a permit granted by city staff. But they leave a lot of leeway for council to make case-by-case decisions, including on a particularly controversial question: whether to allow drilling in floodplains and on parkland.
Parkland and floodplains came up several times -- not surprising, given that Trinity East's gas leases with the city fall on land classified as both. The city earned $34 million from land leased to Trinity East and XTO under the current ordinance. Trinity East manager Steve Fort said this week that his company's plans rest on its ability to get the permission it needed to drill in the floodplain, which he claimed city staff assured him wouldn't be a problem.
Anti-drilling activists and environmentalists are calling for tight restrictions guarding against drilling parks and floodplains. But the task force has recommended that the city allow drilling in parks and floodplains if a site meets a strict set of guidelines.
Councilwoman Angela Hunt, the official spokeswoman of green stuff, said drilling in either should be prohibited altogether. When Councilman Jerry Allen called the money that could come from fracking a "generational asset," Hunt responded by calling the city's greatest "generational asset" a "clean, healthy environment."
Joining her, Councilman Scott Griggs suggested his own plan: Any parkland that is deemed suitable by drilling should be first stripped of its label as "parkland," he said, because if they drilled parkland it's "never going to be part of the natural ecosystem again."
He also strongly warned against drilling in floodplains. "It's all going to wash down, first through southern Dallas, and then through cities farther south that do use the Trinity's water," he said.
But not everyone's so concerned about what's downriver from the frack. Councilman Sheffie Kadane looked to Finkelman for confirmation that all of the fracking materials would be contained, and she nodded yes. "I feel like we're pretty secure there if we did do that in the floodplains," he said.
Fracking's effect on the city's fragile water supply also resurfaced. Councilwoman Sandy Greyson requested more information from city staff about the volume of water used elsewhere for fracking, since the water used in gas-drilling is permanently removed from the water system.
Before everyone went home, Mayor Mike Rawlings set out the next steps in the process of developing a new ordinance, which will include more speakers and more lonely screaming into the wind by Griggs and Hunt. Then, he said, the city council will be briefed by city staff on legal issues.
With that, Councilwoman Caroline Davis summed it up.
"This is far from being over," she said. "We have still a lot of work ahead of us."