Before Environmentalists Take the Stand, Gas Industry Makes Its Case to City's Task Force

After a gas drilling field trip to Arlington and debriefing session, a public hearing at City Hall and a few weeks to let all the information marinate, the city's gas drilling task force got back to the horseshoe Tuesday afternoon with four items on its agenda -- presentations by gas-drilling industry professionals, as Robert previewed. Sometimes, especially at public hearings, these guys in suits are drowned out by the more theatrically inclined environmentalists, but yesterday was their moment to share their knowledge and perspective with the Dallas task force. The anti-drilling side gets its say next week.

Dallas Cothrum of Masterplan Consultants, who usually sits in the audience of these meetings, kicked off the day with his presentation. He drew attention to the city's existing leases with his clients,Trinity East and XTO, and reminded the task force that the currently leased sites near Mountain Creek and L.B. Houston are not in dense urban areas. He brought up Fort Worth's use of exceptions to set-back rules and other ordinance provisions, insinuating that depending how the Dallas ordinance shakes out, exceptions for existing leases might not be such a bad idea.

His slide show walked the task force through other industrial land uses, including Luminant power plants, Pilgrim's Pride meat processing plant and a sewer treatment plant -- all adjacent to homes. Treat fracking like any other industrial land use, Cothrum urged the task force, don't single it out with restrictions so extreme they're prohibitive.

To do so with leases already signed, remember, could potentially end in a lawsuit. Angela Hunt said at that Gasland screening she expects that's just a given. "Will we get sued?" Hunt said. "Yes. It's that simple."

For context, recall the first task force meeting, when task force chair Lois Finkelman said of the city's current leases with energy companies, "It doesn't impact our process ... My goal is to put together a set of recommendations that will provide the greatest amount of protection for the citizens of Dallas."

Then, yesterday, Cothrum said this, emphatically: "Look at what's necessary, don't tightly regulate across the board. Let's try and make the shoe fit."

"We hear you," Finkelman said.

Next, Ed Ireland of the Barnett Shale Education Council, a group consisting of several gas-drilling outfits, outlined the benefits of the gas industry: employment, clean energy, domestic supply. It's even used to power wind turbines, he said. It's a major part of the Texas energy ecology. Ireland, who'd initially applied to be on the task force, walked the panel through results from the Fort Worth air quality study released last month, noting that benzene released in the gas extraction process was "very, very, very far" from levels that would make folks sick, and referenced favorable results the drilling industry's gotten from its own studies.

He also made the point that the Barnett shale in Dallas produces dry natural gas, the opposite of the gas and oil mixture that springs from cities farther west. Therefore, he insisted, vapor recovery units used to collect toxins released into the air as vapor would not be necessary for drilling operations here. In fact, he said, if these units are implemented without enough vapor to sustain them, it could pose a fire hazard and would take a great deal of energy to operate with little benefit.

Task force member David Biegler, a former TXU exec and one of the industry's reps on the city panel, reminded the group to keep in mind that lack of vapor does not mean lack of volatile organic compounds, which produce air pollution.

John Keil, the environmental group leader for Canada-based Encana Natural Gas, said from the outset that Encana has no interest in drilling in the city of Dallas, but he was asked to speak about his company's "general position on environmental management." He detailed his company's "systematic way of managing environmental performance," with an annual expectation of documented improvement. Encana is branding their method of environmental protection so that other companies can mimic their strategy. They call it Ethos.

Compliance with state regulations is the "minimum standard by which we operate," he said, running through such safety nets as baseline data collection and infrared cameras to detect leaks. If something does go wrong -- and, inevitably, it does -- "We have a very rigorous notification process. ... Everybody knows their roles and responsibilities," Keil said.

"John, I come before you today with a group of groupies," said task force member John McCall said. "All my Oak Cliff neighbors raise your hands. You and Kappa [another energy company] are a breath of fresh air." At which point several others in the audience raised their hands -- including Scott Griggs's wife Mariana and Ed and Claudia Meyer.

Next up was Brian Boerner of Chesapeake, who first disclosed that through its acquisitions of other companies, Chesapeake does have interest in currently leased drilling sites in Dallas. However, he said, it appears they are "located outside of the actual drillable area. In all likelihood, we'll let those leases expire and never go back to them again."

Boerner, who was previously the director of environmental management of Fort Worth, was the first to speak at any task force about the scope of drilling in Dallas. The city is on the eastern edge of the drillable area of the Barnett Shale. Based on the geological formation, Boerner said, "We estimate that less than 50 total wells would ever be drilled in Dallas." That's compared to the 2,000 or more that have been drilled in Fort Worth.

"It appears the Dallas area is minimally impacted by the Barnett Shale," he said.

He touted Chesapeake's "corporate commitment to the environment," adding, "If it's not correct, we'll fix it. Period. End of story."

He addressed many of the same studies as Ireland, and added that water use for the upkeep of landscaping required by some city ordinances accounts for 10 percent of total water usage. He said, hey, maybe we shouldn't landscape. Maybe we should just hang pictures of landscaping. Or ... something. Several people in the crowd smirked, and Boerner continued without a hint of humor in his voice: "... same thing with Disneyland and Disney World. Where it looks like something that is supposed to be incorporated instead of something that's not supposed to be there."

Anti-drilling activists in the audience rolled their eyes. McCall was not amused: "Perhaps instead of minimizing our irrigation requirement, we should stiffen our tree requirement," he said, insinuating that gas companies chop more mature trees than necessary.

Task force member Cherelle Blazer asked the panel, "Do you all use isotope tracers [to track frac water in case of a spill]?"

After a back-and-forth about the obvious purpose of such a precaution, Boerner said, "No, we do not, and we have concern about that ... It's more prudent to establish a baseline and go from there."

Environmentalists in the audience muttered that they weren't buying what the industry was selling. Next week, they're prepared to to offer their own rebuttal. Though the purpose of these sessions is to educate the task force and allow some give-and-take, some back-and-forth, the us-versus-them mentality between industry reps and environmental activists is as strong as ever.

After the meeting, Cothrum defended the gas companies, saying, "They're surprisingly open to innovation, and they're ahead of the curve on it. ... People don't like change, and I'm an agent of change."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Leslie Minora