Calling Shotgun on Where and When to Drill

OK, let's get this straight: If a natural gas company wants to sink a well within 1,000 feet of your Dallas home, that would be bad. Not healthy. Not safe. Stop it.

But what if you don't care whether your neighbor is a drilling rig? Or, perhaps you're a developer who owns one of the few remaining chunks of undeveloped property in the city? Shouldn't you be able to plunk a down house -- or a dozen -- wherever you please on your own land even if a drilling company got to the neighborhood first? (And then sell them, of course.)

Maybe, maybe not.

That's one of the dilemmas that stymied Dallas's drilling task force Tuesday as it postponed plans to wrap up its meetings and send final recommendations on rules for drilling to the city council. The task force's recommendations are due February 28, at which point the council gets to start the discussion all over again.

"I would say that in other cities this has turned out to be a sticky wicket," said Terry Welch, task force member and lawyer on behalf of North Texas cities. He recommends that setback rules work both ways: no drilling near "protected land uses" and no building a protected use in the shadow of an existing drilling site. (More on what exactly "protected use" means in a bit. Think houses. Possibly hotels ... for now, anyway.)

"All I'm saying is, if we're so concerned about the setbacks and public health and safety before the gas wells go in, shouldn't we have that concern after the gas wells?" Welch said later. Besides, future owners of buildings built after a gas well was drilled might not even be aware that they have a well for a neighbor, since that information won't be on any deeds.

Ah, but basing a decision solely on issues of whether or not someone in the future might get blown up or sick ignores the equally important question of property rights. Health and safety or property rights -- which is more important? (Remember, this is Texas.)

"For me, taking away property rights is a very serious matter," said David Biegler, task force member and CEO of Southcross Energy. "Taking away property rights of everybody else who wants to use their land of their own use and of their own free will, I don't think that's right." In other words, future development can come after drilling even if it's within the recommended setback distance.

Patrick Shaw, an oil and gas attorney on the task force, was adamant that the task force not extend setback distances to future property development. "When it's used to prohibit me from developing my property, I just can't support that," he said. Former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher agreed. "Telling landowners what to do with their property is not a job I would do," she said. Unless, of course, the landowners want to have a drilling company dig a gas well.

If the task force doesn't extend the setback distances to apply to future development, Welch said, "our setbacks really have no meaning anymore."

While several task force members referenced health concerns as a reason to apply setbacks to future property development, Biegler claimed that's a red herring. The group had "fallen into the trap of saying we've established our 1,000 feet based on health reasons." At no point, he said, was a clear connection between health issues and 1,000-foot setbacks ever made, nor is there any proof that distance is justified to protect property values.

"I remind everybody there is no diminishment of property value if the well is already there," he said.

As if this chicken-and-the-well philosophical debate wasn't divisive enough, in a Tuesday-morning email to his fellow task force members, John McCall reopened the question of what, exactly, should be a protected use.

When he supported the setbacks, McCall, an attorney who lives in Oak Cliff, thought "protected use" meant only residential properties, he wrote. Throughout subsequent meetings, the group expanded the definition to include parks and hotels within the 1,000-foot ban. (According to the task force's recommendations so far, a setback could be shrunk to 750 feet if two-thirds of city council approves it.)

"To include so many other categories in the protected uses simply erodes the value that we place upon private residential property," McCall wrote.

McCall's message came in response to emails from energy company representative Dallas Cothrum of MasterPlan Consulting, who warned that the task force's recommendations would effectively prevent drilling in Dallas, since there's not much property in the city that's not within 1,000 feet of something people frequent. McCall wrote:

"Dallas Cothrum has made some valid and realistic concerns about the setbacks we have prescribed and the potential ramifications. ... To now impose the same setbacks to such things as lodging seems to be an unrealistic. There are numerous lodging facilities that sit adjacent to railroad tracks and highways that allow transport of bio-hazardous materials that can and have exploded and created negative impacts."

McCall is one of three citizen representatives on the task force; the other six are split between industry and subject-matter experts. Ed Meyer, a Mountain Creek resident, said that if McCall intended to "fuel the fire" among the tight-knit group of anti-drilling activists, it worked. His email to the task force made the rounds, and people were not happy.

"What about where I work? What about where I shop? What about where I eat?" asked Zac Trahan of Texas Campaign for the Environment.

At their next meeting on February 21, task force members will address topics that still concern them. It's a safe bet this one will be at the top of McCall's list and likely others' as well.

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