Never one to let an unwelcome neighbor move in unannounced, Councilman Dave Neumann invited residents around far west Oak Cliff's Hensley Field to come on out to the airfield last night and hear direct from XTO Energy reps about their natural gas drilling plans in their neighborhood.
The City Plan Commission will consider XTO's specific use permit request for the site -- and open the floor for public comment -- on Thursday, but Neumann invited residents within 1,000 feet of XTO's proposed drilling site to come here details about the operation. "This is not a required meeting," Neumann told the room. "I chose to have this community meeting so the neighborhood has an opportunity to understand and give feedback."
XTO was happy to oblige by marching in senior regulatory affairs coordinator Walter Dueease to explain to curious neighbors how the drilling process would work at the site, then hang around like a frozen side of beef while folks who'd long made up their mind laid into him.
Neighbors -- and other drilling critics who got wind of the meeting -- grilled Dueease on the usual concerns swirling around gas drilling, worried about whether the operation would generate noise, air, water and soil pollution. He probably didn't change too many minds, but Dueease was well versed in counter arguments to allay their concerns.
And then two of the guys in U.S. Army camouflage and short-cropped hair, who'd been sitting quietly up to that point, stood up to address what one called "the elephant in the room, which is an active airfield." Jeff Long, a pilot with a group of Singaporean helicopters that fly out of Hensley, said they'd just decided to re-up for another 40 years at the airfield, but had no idea during their evaluation that there would be an active drilling site moving in.
Long and Lt. Col. Jim Hardy ran through a litany of concerns, beginning with the fact that XTO's proposed pad site -- and its 160-foot drilling rig -- is right in line with the helicopters' takeoff path. Light from the drill site would disrupt pilots' night-vision training; trucks heading onto the XTO pad could create a security problem for the airfield. "My greatest concern worst case scenario is we hit hat tower, that wreckage is going in your neighborhood," Long said. "If I was going into combat again, that is exactly what I would expect the enemy to do."
Neumann urged Long and Hardy to keep working with XTO to work out a solution. Dueease, for his part, suggested that any noise from the drill site would be small potatoes next to the thundering helicopter takeoffs and landings they're already used to. "I don't see how we would be adding or increasing that noise level," Dueease said.
Fred Allen, a DART employee who'd spent most of the meeting in a huff with his arms crossed across the aisle from Neumann, piped in here to explain the difference: "That sound they're making, that's the sound of freedom," he said. "The sound you're making is the sound of profit."
"And we are serving the country's energy needs," Dueease fired back.
"Well, go serve it somewhere else."
Allen was the most outspoken of a few who came to the meeting to tell XTO to get out. "It seems like to me, this thing is going to go forward whether we want it or not," Allen said. "I don't want the traffic, I don't want the smell in the air. You guys are going to devalue my property, and I don't want it."
One Hawaiian-shirted guy in the front row told Dueease he was only bothered that the city would be getting all the royalties. "You can drill in my backyard as long as you're paying me money, I don't care. There's nothing you can do to that field that's gonna make it any worse than it already is," he said. "It sounds like Dallas made a heck of a deal and forgot about the rest of us."
Raymond Crawford with Dallas Residents for Responsible Drilling, raised specific concerns about the chemicals involved in XTO's fracking mix, and where they'd be getting the 2-3 million gallons of water they'd need per well. (Hopefully from neighboring Mountain Creek Lake, Dueease told him, but probably from a city fire hydrant.)
Dueease outlined a host of measures that XTO would take to minimize pollution, including noise-dampening blankets, a metal containment ring and plastic cover around the pad site, and photos of the safety shut-off valves used on wellheads. He pointed to a recent Integra Realty Resources study to calm their concerns about a drop in their property values because of the drilling.
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The Hensley Field site SUP is the first of two XTO submitted to the city. Those two are the first SUP requests to come out of the city deal in 2008, to lease mineral rights at a handful of of sites for $34 million. If the SUP gets approval from the Plan Commission and the City Council, and passes an administrative review from the city, Dueease said he'd expect to see drilling begin in December or January.
After the two-hour meeting, Neumann told Unfair Park he was encouraged to see so many residents turn up, but that he and other residents face a steep learning curve as they get to understand gas drilling. "I think what we have is fear of the unknown, and that's a natural thing. I think what you have is some confusion. This is difficult information to digest in a short setting," he said. "One meeting does not make a decision... I came undecided, and I'm leaving undecided."