Longform

Fear and Fracking in Southlake

Thirty miles northwest of Dallas, there is a suburb the outside world scarcely touches. There is no evidence of recession here, no stagnating unemployment. In 2008, Forbes named it the most affluent neighborhood in the country. The next year it was named one of the richest ZIP codes of its size. The people who live here are, by and large, white, conservative, educated, successful. They flock here to secure their own subdivided piece of the American dream, and to construct sprawling, million-dollar brick houses wreathed with emerald lawns untouched by the drought. They're in their mid-30s on average, and they want their children to attend the town's nationally recognized schools and, just maybe, to watch their sons play for its storied football team, now seven-time state champions.

Many of them attend Gateway Church, an architectural marvel more cavernous concert hall than house of worship. The church moved into its new home a year ago, and until recently it planned to sell its old, more modest digs to professional polemicist Glenn Beck. Before changing his mind last week, Beck had handpicked Southlake as his new studio headquarters.

On weekday afternoons, young mothers can be seen parking luxury SUVs along the spotless, upscale Town Square, Southlake's crown jewel, built in 1999 as an exemplar of "new urbanism." They push strollers past City Hall, a stately red-brick structure with soaring Ionic columns, flanked by stores in the old downtown style. But instead of a ma-and-pa grocer or an independent book store, there's Williams-Sonoma, Eddie Bauer, American Eagle and the Gap. When finished strolling, the moms may sit at a park bench at Town Square's center and look out over the flowers, trees, manicured hedges and three fountains. (In the interest of conservation, a sign there announces, one of the fountains has been shut off.)

The town's residents take comfort in the knowledge that not much happens here. The last murder occurred more than a decade ago. A heated item on the city council agenda might revolve around the planting of trees and flowers in the median of the main promenade.

This, in essence, is Southlake.

Or at least it was, before the land men arrived in 2008. That's when land owners big and small were presented with checks for as much as $20,000 per acre, in exchange for the opportunity to drill deep into the heart of the Barnett Shale's sweet spot. They were after natural gas, which at the time was selling at the high price of $14 per million British Thermal Units (BTU). Through a controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, millions of gallons of water laced with sand and hazardous industrial chemicals would be injected into well bores sunk deep below Southlake at pressures of up to 5,000 pounds per square inch, in order to break the rock and release the gas, mostly methane, from its pores and interstices. Combined with horizontal drilling techniques that can extend a wellbore laterally for thousands of feet, it turned a once unprofitable resource into a promising source of energy — one that could even unseat coal as the king of power generation, it's been suggested. Energy companies like Devon and Chesapeake and ExxonMobil were buying up all the leases they could, literally going door to door and inviting residents to signing parties. Southlake, residents were discovering, sat at the epicenter of Texas' newest boom.

Before long, everyone assumed natural gas royalties would inundate school district and city coffers, along with the already well-padded pockets of townspeople. This was, without doubt, the biggest thing to ever happen to Southlake.

Once placid, sparsely attended city council meetings yielded to a packed house. Neighbors took to the podium and argued, often bitterly, for and against drilling. The debate exposed fault lines, often between old Southlake, whose landowning members could remember a country town predating the wealthy bedroom community it had become, and the newly arrived nouveau riche, who had young children and were frightened by the specter of poisoned air, well blowouts and flammable tap water, and who would stop at nothing to see the drillers' advance halted at the city limits sign. Money and fear, not abstract, drill-baby-drill political ideology or staunch environmentalism, were the very tangible currencies of this debate.

Southlake was grappling with what cities all around DFW have been grappling with: how to manage a play that would bring the sights and sounds of heavy industry out of the pastures and rural towns and into its suburban backyards and school playgrounds. As the debate forged ahead, derricks rose and fell from the skylines of towns all around Southlake — a small clearing in the heart of a vast forest of rigs. Almost a decade into a modern gold rush, and not a single well was spudded within its borders. The big question was, when the town finally made up its mind, would the derrick lights shine over Southlake?


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Brantley Hargrove