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At EPA's Public Comment Session Over Gas Drilling Regulations, An Airing of Grievances

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They came in striped ties and checkered ties, sport coats and shirtsleeves and the beard stubble of Washington operators on the road. The four white-collar grunts from the Environmental Protection Agency were greeted in Arlington last night by townsfolk who drove in from around the Barnett Shale to woo them for their cause.

With passionate pleas about rampant asthma, benzene and carbon disulfide flares and mineral drillers run amok in a lawless frontier -- this invitation for public comment, from noon to 10 Monday night, played out in the City Council chambers like a Seven Samurai/¡Three Amigos! double feature.

True to convention, though, the traveling lawmen hadn't come as liberators. The meeting was a mandatory public comment session, part of the EPA's review of specific air regulations for the oil and natural gas industry. With testimony from more than 50 folks, from energy industry groups and lawyers to the usual concerned locals, it was open season on drilling regulations in the Barnett Shale.

Deborah Rogers, an artisanal cheese maker with a goat dairy in Fort Worth, drew a standing ovation after her five-minute plea for the EPA to mandate vapor capture systems. Rogers, who also runs Mineral Owners for Responsible Action and Land Safety, said she was drawn into activism after noticing air quality problems around a Chesapeake Energy well on her land. Rogers said she spent $30,000 to test the air after a series of chemical flares, concerned they'd affect her dairy operation. "Every time I think about it it makes me angry."

Rogers was one of many urging the EPA to stand by its regulations even where the Texas Railroad Commission or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have allowed exemptions older businesses or during start-up and shut-down procedures. (Last week, Texas challenged the EPA's ruling against the state's "Flexible Permits Program" for older production operations.)

In the other corner, industry lawyers and trade groups focused on how much cleaner natural gas is than other energy sources, and told the EPA reps that additional regulations would make it tougher to compete against coal and oil. Melissa Taldykin of the grassrootsy Consumer Energy Alliance told the EPA, "We need to be very careful about slowing down the regulatory process," reminding them natural gas is still the "lowest-emitting conventional fuel."

"It sounds like you had a different reason for coming, but hopefully we have sent the message loud and clear that we need help here," Arlington's Kanini Brooks told the EPA reps. "There's no lcoal monitoring or enforcement guidelines. There's confusion between the railroad commission and TCEQ, and grave safety concerns."

At the Arlington meeting Monday, and another today in Denver, the EPA is collecting input before drafting new proposals for performance standards for leak detection and sulfur dioxide emissions controls at gas processing plants, and standards for toxic emissions at natural gas production and storage operations. The EPA's new proposals are due by the end of January 2011, and if you couldn't make it to Arlington last night, you can still offer input by email.

Most of the usual suspects who've been fighting for natural gas regulation in North Texas come from rural and suburban areas west of Dallas, though XTO Energy recetnly applied to drill at two spots in South Dallas. For folks who've already been arguing the issue for a while, the stakes couldn't be higher.

"If we kill ourselves, we have no need to worry about a balanced economy," said Marc McCord with the Dallas Downriver Club. "Environmental pollution wiped out the dinosaur species, and they were a lot bigger and a lot tougher than we are."

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