Dallas' City Plan Commission Just Got a Very Special Workshop on How Safe Gas Drilling Is

When we last left the beleaguered members of the City Plan Commission, they were opting to once again delay a vote on energy company Trinity East's application to drill for natural gas in the floodplain along the Trinity River. This morning, the CPC was subjected to a four-hour workshop on gas drilling, which looked a lot like a bid to re-educate the commissioners on just how very safe, harmless and well regulated the drilling process is. Just in case any of them haven't gotten the message on how they're supposed to vote.

To recap, briefly: the CPC voted to deny Trinity East's application back in December, due to the inconvenient fact that current city rules prohibit drilling in parkland and floodplains, the only places where Trinity East is interested in drilling. Then, for some reason, they decided to reconsider that decision.

Three representatives from environmentalist groups have filed a complaint with the public integrity unit at the District Attorney's office, alleging that the chairman of the CPC, Joe Alcantar, privately and unlawfully pressed his fellow commissioners to reconsider the vote. But on they went.

Last week the CPC delayed their vote again, presumably while frantically texting their respective council members to please, please, please speed up their decision on new drilling rules in Dallas and make this whole thing just go away. In the meantime, through the work of our own Jim Schutze, we learned that City Manager Mary Suhm had secretly agreed to help Trinity East win drilling rights on city parkland. It's been an eventful couple of weeks.

A vote from the City Council on new drilling rules isn't expected for several more months, and the council has been pretty clear that they'll consider Trinity East's application under the old rules. But that means it has to get through the CPC first.

So that's why the commissioners this morning found themselves hearing from the very same pro- and anti-drilling representatives that the City Council listened to way back in August: Dallas attorney Terry Welch, who previously served on the gas drilling task force, and Ed Ireland, who heads the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a group made up of gas drilling companies. Ireland even brought the same slides he showed to the council. Commissioners also heard from representatives of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Welch told the commissioners he was "opting not to talk about the pros and cons" of drilling itself. "I assume you all have heard an awful lot about gas drilling," he understated.

Welch focused instead on specific land use issues surrounding drilling. He argued that Trinity East is trying to shift the conversation, making it about whether their proposed drilling operations are "reasonable and prudent." Instead, Welch said, the CPC's only consideration should be if the company is proposing a use that's currently permitted by Dallas' ordinances. "The use is key," he said, "not whether or not this is a good site plan."

Welch also pointed out that Trinity East wants one site -- the Luna South facility near the soccer complex -- to be the central location for all of their natural gas compressors. (Compressors come with their own heightened set of noise and pollutant issues, as a 2009 NPR report on compressors in the Barnett laid out.)

"Nowhere in the ordinance are compressors for other operation sites permitted at a central site," Welch said. While grouping the compressors together on a central pad site "might make sense for an operator financially," he said, "they're not a permitted use." He noted that the city's interpretation of the rules around compressors and compression sites "seems to have changed."

Welch also referred to a recent letter from State Senator John Carona, urging the mayor to suspend consideration on Trinity East's proposal until more study on drilling's environmental impacts can be done.

"I agree with Carona," Welch said. "These are large facilities. They'll be there for decades. It's prudent for the city to inquire on their emissions effects." In a little jab at the TCEQ reps in the room, he added that the city could likely expect "very little enforcement" from them or from any federal regulatory body.

As he wrapped up, Welch told the commissioners, basically, that it was time to pass the buck back to the City Council where it belongs. "I would suggest to you that it's prudent to say to the council, 'Make the changes you think are necessary. Whatever you do, be fully consistent with these issues.'"

Welch started to take questions from the commissioners. They were asking him about the environmental impacts of having several compressors on one pad site when an assistant city attorney I didn't recognize charged up to the microphone beside him. She seemed rather exasperated.

"You are going to be voting on three SUPs," she told the commissioners curtly. "These are land use issues. Floodplain issues don't go through the CPC."

Another assistant city attorney, John Rogers, chimed in. "Mr. Welch is not here to brief you on legal issues," he said, rather sternly. "He should not be giving you legal advice. If you need legal advice, the city attorney's office will provide it."

A few moments later, Ed Ireland took the mic. He described the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, somewhat accurately, as "a community outreach effort to provide energy education." Ireland told the CPC that none of the drilling operations in urban areas in the Barnett Shale have resulted in any air or water pollution, at least according to the TCEQ. What's more, he added, the "economic impact" would be tremendous. He showed them several pages of slides with million dollar figures from other cities that have allowed drilling, before Chairman Alcantar coughed gently and asked him to stick to "the land use aspects."

Ireland did that for a while, showing the commissioners a photo of a lovely tree-lined gas drilling site in Fort Worth. He followed that a few moments later with a photo of a "completed" site in Burleson, which is now a golf course. He then spoke about how every chemical used in the fracking process is disclosed on a government-run website, unless of course it's a trade secret. It was exactly identical to his previous presentation to the City Council, and it was unclear how it dealt with any of the specific land use issues before the CPC.

In response to questions from the commissioners, though, Ireland did explain how energy companies build in floodplains: by elevating their tanks well above ground level, and locating any storage facilities out of the floodplain area. When Commissioner Ann Bagley asked if he knew of any compressor stations currently located in a floodplain, as Trinity East is proposing, Ireland replied, "I can't think of any off the top of my head."

Ireland also denied that there's "any relationship between seismic activity" (earthquakes) "and hydraulic fracturing." (There is.) He also claimed that injection wells, where waste from the fracking process is stored, couldn't possibly be causing any earthquakes. He described the injection wells as containing "just very salty water," prompting some outraged giggling from the environmentalists in the audience. (There's a lot of other stuff in there, and it's toxic. That's why they're putting it miles below the earth's surface in the first place. Where it causes earthquakes.)

Ireland passed off any specific questions about health risks associated with fracking to the TCEQ representatives. Erin Selvera did most of the talking for them; she's a special assistant with the TCEQ's Air Permits Division who is also a lawyer. She first ran through a jargon-filled presentation on the permitting process, as well as the self-reporting on air pollution that gas companies do for the state each year. Commissioner Sally Wolfish asked her if fracking is safe and not hazardous to human beings, provided all the rules are followed.

Of course, Selvera replied. "We don't anticipate any adverse effects on human health or the environment."

At that point, Zac Trahan from Texas Campaign for the Environment held up a yellow manila folder from the audience. He'd written the word "LIE" on one side and "SHAME" on the other. A security guard immediately escorted him from the building.

"The TCEQ says the same thing about every industry, every polluting facility, every proposal," Trahan wrote in an email to us later. "They are in favor of industry each and every time. They believe their mission is to grant permits to polluters. Whether it's a landfill, a gas processing facility, a cement plant, a coal-fired power plant, anything, TCEQ will always bend over backwards to grant the industry's wishes. They aren't credible."

Trahan added that he's waved similar placards from the audience in the past, without being kicked out. "But at least I didn't have to sit through any more lies from the state environmental agency," he added.

The TCEQ reps took another two hours or so to tell the commissioners how healthy drilling is, before the CPC went into executive session to talk with the city attorney's office. The saga continues.

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