Tuesday, Dallas gas drilling task force members -- and city council members Angela Hunt, Linda Koop and, but of course, Sheffie Kadane -- poured out of two white 15-passenger vans and into the 100-degree heat at XTO and Chesapeake natural gas sites in various stages of production throughout Arlington. Mayor Mike Rawlings, fresh from his European vacation, even came along for the first couple stops, though his long sleeves and tie were no match for the heat.
In general, educational field trips help make classroom lessons tangible and visible, and this one was no different. Collin Gregory, Arlington's gas drilling coordinator, lead the discussion, walking Dallas officials through the process of drilling, fracking and extracting natural gas, while detailing Arlington's ordinances regulating the process. The sites were as pristine and well-groomed as one might expect from a prearranged visit, but then again, Gregory pointed out that Arlington officials do inspect sites at least once a month, usually more.
The tour had one caveat: The scheduled XTO hydraulic fracturing job had finished in the morning, meaning no active frac job would take place on the tour. After a drive-by at a different site that was expected to be in the fracturing phase but was not, the Chesapeake drill rig at 5700 US Highway 287 marked the first stop for the vans packed with city officials.
A frac pond had been carved into the ground behind the drilling location. It was full of fresh water that would soon be mixed with chemicals and pumped beneath the earth's surface to coax gas from the Barnett Shale. Gregory told the group that gas companies buy water from the city at a "commercial rate."
Hunt asked whether Chesapeake discloses the chemicals used for fracking. A Chesapeake representative said, "Yes," you bet, the company discloses the chemicals used in the fracking fluid. "With the new legislation that was passed, you can actually look on a well-by-well basis," she told the council member.
But the Hunt pressed further: "So there are no trade secret chemicals withheld?" Lois Finkelman, chair of the Dallas gas drilling task force, added that the law leaves room for omission.
At their prodding, the Chesapeake official clarified that "we used a third party" to provide fracking fluid, and Chesapeake discloses the information the "third party" provides -- though that company may not be required to give a complete list of chemicals used.
At the drilling site, with the tall cellphone tower-like structure above where the machinery was boring a hole, Gregory pointed out that the high, padded sound walls are effective at protecting the neighborhood across the street from the loud engine-like noise. He said the city "absolutely" does noise testing to ensure it falls within the levels agreed upon. If that's not the case, the city temporarily shuts down the operation. Gregory also said that the exhaust pollution from the diesel generators must fall within standards set by the Railroad Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
After the drilling site, the crowd piled like sardines back into the vans and headed for what was initially planned as fracturing site, but was instead a well site. Gregory said the city of Arlington determines what landscaping the gas companies use to make these highly conspicuous sites less of an eyesore.
Four well heads, appearing like larger, more complex fire hydrants, sat in the middle of the mostly barren site clinking quietly. Blue containers of fracking fluid were off to the left side of the site, and cylinders used to separate the water from the gas and meter the amount of gas sat at the right. Walter Dueease, XTO's senior regulatory affairs coordinator, assured the crowd that "redundant controls" such as multiple valves on the wells to stymie the gas flow if necessary, provide "levels of protection" throughout the process.
Once the gas is collected here, it is piped to a compressor station at 1011 West Harris Road. This marked the next stop for the big white vans. About 275 million cubic feet of natural gas moves daily through this compression station, an intermediary stop paid for by energy companies. Outside the station, the noise was comparable to the propellers of an idling small plane. The Arlington ordinance requires that compressors be housed within a structure, and this sturdy garage space is among the largest, containing three 6,000 horsepower units and six 3,000 horsepower units.
The football field-sized room housing the six units, five of which were running, gave off the jarring noise of several jackhammers, but from just outside, it was barely audible. Asked whether big sophisticated structures like this were atypical for Barnett compressor stations, Joe Velasquez, vice president of operations for Summit Midstream, which operates the facility, said, "Very much so." Compressor stations elsewhere can be found outside in plain sight (and earshot).
Velasquez said this station's electric compressors leave a "very small footprint" with fewer emissions than a gas station. Once the gas leaves the compressor station, it has been dehydrated -- and increased in pressure sevenfold.
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While the entire process is extremely complex and impossible to entirely cover in an afternoon, yesterday provided a solid practical overview without many surprises.
Hunt said that while she appreciates the generosity of the city of Arlington for choreographing the tour, she wished it were "less bland ... where we drop in on folks" instead of carefully "cherry-picked" locations. Task force member Cherelle Blazer had a similar reaction.
Former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher, also on the task force, called the day "extremely helpful" and added, "Education is important before we start making decisions."
Finkelman asked members to reserve their discussion of the field trip until next Tuesday's meeting, when they will unpack their analysis in a public forum.