Fear and Fracking in Southlake

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She fired off an email to friends, asking them to show up at city council. "I wasn't saying, 'Hey, this is bad and we need to stop it.' It was just, 'Hey, guys, let's pay attention. This is going up right outside of Timarron.'"

The email was forwarded to others and was eventually circulated widely. Missives in support of drilling began piling up in her inbox, sent to city council members but pointedly CCing Davis. A few days later, she received a call from a man who sounded like he was trying to disguise his voice. "I know what you're doing," she claims he said, "and you're going to regret it."

Undeterred, she began showing up and speaking at any public meeting where the subject might come up. She wrote impassioned letters to council members, sharing the results of the research she did after tucking her children into bed. She printed dozens of copies of city council public comment forms and distributed them to girlfriends and stay-at-home moms who shared her fears. She also met opponents of another proposed drilling site in Southlake. An organized, grassroots opposition coalesced.

Meanwhile, something was changing in Davis.

"I used to get really angry when I'd listen to politics and I'd be like 'These liberals!'" she says. "And I always went into whatever it was from a political standpoint, whether it was the budget or tax cuts. I really looked at it in black and white, and now I'm looking at it all differently. I'm not so quick to judge something. I want to take time to research it."

But Davis could also sense that something in Southlake had been fundamentally altered. The town was shot through with a tense undercurrent, and one topic in particular was practically verboten in polite conversation.

"It's one of those things like abortion," she says. "You can talk to people about it if you know they feel the same way, but you're not gonna go out of your way to talk to people about it if you don't know where they stand."

The atmosphere in Southlake had grown acidic. Pro-drillers, as she refers to them — or old Southlake, as it were — liked to paint her and others as carpetbagging environmentalists. Davis, a native Texan, bristled every time. Because for her, it wasn't about some overriding concern for the environment, or an inchoate hostility toward the industry. It was her kids. Every time she looked for answers, she was left with only more questions.

"I think I'm always gonna worry a little bit, like a mom worries about her kids when they leave the house," she says. "What is it that we don't know? Here are all the things we do know and we've covered those. But what about what we don't know?"

As late as 2007, analysts assumed that the United States would become increasingly dependent on liquefied natural gas imports from the Middle East. We knew the shale gas was there, but tapping it just wasn't commercially feasible.

Today, the United States is nearly self-sufficient in that regard. Shale gas is being groomed as the "bridge" fuel to the future — a plentiful, low-carbon, cleaner-burning alternative to coal. Nationally, shale gas production sprang from virtually zero in 2000 to 10 billion cubic feet per day in 2010. Geologists estimate there's 30 trillion cubic feet trapped in the Barnett Shale alone.

John Deutch, an MIT professor and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee, has called the turn of events "perhaps the biggest shift in energy-reserve estimates in the last half century." ConocoPhillips CEO Jim Mulva told a Detroit audience in September that his company had quadrupled its investment in gas this year to $2 billion. President Barack Obama declared in March that there could be enough shale gas beneath American soil to last a century. And Governor Rick Perry has repeatedly called for the deregulation of the industry, arguing that dismantling pesky protections will spark the creation of more jobs.

But as gas wells proliferated on the Barnett Shale and elsewhere, so too did environmental and health complaints, along with a host of often contradictory research about its impacts. A 2004 EPA study seemed to absolve the industry of contaminating groundwater supplies with fracking fluid, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates may contain 15,000 gallons of chemicals for every three million gallon well stimulation. In response, Congress exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. But buried deep within the nearly 400-page study was an admission that fracking fluids had traveled hundreds of feet beyond the point of injection. Legislators also missed the not-so-fine print: That the study pertained to hydraulic fracturing in coal beds, not shale.

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Brantley Hargrove

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