Environmentalists Get Their Turn at the Gas-Drilling Task Force's Lectern

Environmentalists got their turn at the mic at this week's gas-drilling-panel meeting, where the industry's opponents took turns airing its dirty bits. While last week, industry representatives lauded the practice for its production of affordable energy and its boosting of the economy, this week drilling sounded a bit rougher around the edges.

Drilling activist Raymond Crawford kicked things off with a line from the 2006 Forward Dallas environmental plan: "The ideal is that the city's natural resources are conserved and protected for future generations," he recited, adding that negotiating this with the prospect of drilling will be a difficult situation for the city. (Your faithful Unfair Park gas drilling correspondent was stuck out of town, but luckily, the city posts audio after every meeting.)

"It's going to be a very delicate balancing plan, and I wish everyone here lots of luck," he said. (They hear this quite a bit.)

Judith Jordan, a Colorado hydrogeologist, tried to educate the panel on the danger of well casings. Wells drilled hundreds to thousands of feet into the ground are sealed in cement, either partially or all the way to the source of natural gas. If they are not properly encased, activists say, methane and other chemicals and substances can enter the aquifer. Hence the horror stories of people lighting their water on fire.

Gary Hogan, former member of Fort Worth's gas-drilling task force, stressed that his city is not a perfect example. "Sadly, we still do not have our ordinance correct," he said. He noted that he wanted set-backs farther than the established "arbitrary" 600 feet, to which many exceptions have been granted, landing drill sites adjacent to at least three day care centers. He called the oft-cited Fort Worth air quality study "a rather intensive study" that was "still just a snapshot picture in time."

In a presentation titled Leaking Money, Dr. Melanie Sattler, a civil engineer and professor at the University of Texas, said that many of the emissions lost during fracking have commercial value. If they were contained and sold, it would provide a "win-win" situation -- more money for gas companies and less air pollution.

"Seventy percent of emissions released with commercial value are from pneumatic devices," she said, a reference to the valves used in fracking. Valves that prevent or reduce leaking gas are a major part of her "win-win" scenario. It wasn't quite relevant to the task force's mission of shaping the city ordinance, but it's something to think about.

The most emotional presenter of the afternoon was Sharon Wilson, of the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project and Earthworks, who delivered reams of anecdotal evidence that drilling is detrimental to the health of people living and working nearby. She said the highest rates of invasive breast cancer coincide with the density of wells in Northeast Texas. (The Denton Record-Chronicle published a story about the prevalence of breast cancer there today.)

Deborah Rogers, a Fort Worth resident and former committee member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, spoke about the economics of drilling. She said there is "too much emphasis on the amount of gas trapped in shales" and not enough on whether it's economically beneficial to remove that gas. And it may not be.

"The questions facing Dallas," she said, "is whether production can truly be counted on to provide benefits, will jobs and taxes really be as stable as claimed, and are pad sites in densely populated areas truly the highest and best use of the land?" Later in her presentation, she said, "This probably isn't the highest and best use of the land."

Between this week's roster of presenters and last week's, the task force has quite a bit to mull over. Next Tuesday will feature briefings from subject matter experts. With any luck they'll stitch together with the past two weeks and make some sort of cohesive quilt.

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