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Fear and Fracking in Southlake

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"The reality is it doesn't make sense to take those risks. We don't need the gas like that. We don't need the money like that. I can live without gas, and I can live without gas royalties, but I can't live without clean air, clean water and my health and my kids' health."

At the same meetings, he came across Zena Rucker. The frail but fiery octogenarian describes herself as environmentally conscientious as any Southlake resident. She isn't some armchair treehugger who waxes green then hops into a Chevy Tahoe, either. As far as she knows, she's the only person in Southlake with a solar array capable of powering her rambling, vaguely neo-Mediterranean-style home. She recycles. She composts. She protested with all the other flower children during Vietnam. She's been a Tarrant County Democratic Party precinct chair for years. "I drive a Prius," she adds.

And she wants very much for the energy companies to start drilling.

"They're not worried about the environment," she says of drilling opponents, who she claims are "all Republicans." "That's an excuse. [The companies] are making drilling as safe as they can make it. The people here who don't have mineral rights are the ones totally against it, because Southlake has this attitude of, 'If I can't have it, you can't either.' Or, 'Not in my backyard.' They're very self-obsessed people."

Rucker is one of the largest landowners in Southlake, with 75 acres in the heart of the city. She and her late husband, an airline pilot she met when she was a stewardess, bought the gorgeous spread, with its old-growth trees and green pastures stretching far into the distance, back when Southlake was an unincorporated hamlet populated with Baptist farmers.

Southlake has changed a lot since then, and not for the better, as far as Rucker is concerned. "I used to buy eggs where Town Square is now," she says. "That was an egg farm." And the fact that the energy companies she was ready to make a deal with have been held up at city council, thanks to a bunch of petty Republicans, was, in her eyes, only the latest sign Southlake was headed south.

Chesapeake Energy, a rising juggernaut in the Barnett, was the first to approach Rucker. The company let that lease expire. Then ExxonMobil-owned XTO came along, and left a check on the table for nearly $300,000 — a mere enticement for what was to come. The way she explains it, with one proposed site to the south and the Milner site to the north, their lateral fracks would be shattering shale beneath her land. They needed her.

But things quickly got complicated. The site to the south, on the sprawling property of a man named Joe Wright, was proposed to spud 1,200 feet from Kim Davis' home, as a compromise to get it farther from Grapevine High School. With its proximity to Timarron and the tanks full of combustible fuel, these safety concerns conspired to scuttle the deal.

Standing between Rucker and her new revenue stream were city council members who, amidst swirling discord in their usually tranquil town hall, were moving cautiously. The planning and zoning committee had already failed to approve the Milner site in November 2010, and in February of this year, another effort to green-light drilling at the Wright site near Davis' home failed. But the Milner proposal didn't die. In a bizarre twist that smelled of political machinations to some on the committee, the city attorney declared the failed motion insufficient. The committee, the city attorney wrote, hadn't specifically denied the application. The ruling drew a collective head scratch, but the result was clear: XTO could commence drilling the Milner site near Aalund's home.

The anti-drilling faction struck back. Aalund's newly formed group, Southlake Taxpayers Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND), took the city to court and won a temporary restraining order preventing drilling at the Milner site.

But the controversy turned out to be a moot one. Shortly after the court ruling, XTO stunned Southlake, announcing that the temporarily restrained Milner site was no longer "financially feasible." It reclaimed its six-figure check from Zena Rucker's table and pulled out of Southlake altogether. Under increasing pressure, the city extended a moratorium on new drilling permits into November while it revised the city ordinance that regulated fracking, from air quality monitoring to setbacks from public parks.

Aalund, Davis and STAND were elated. Rucker and Bob Gray, the spokesman for a pro-drilling group, said the anti-drillers and the city council had just cost Southlake and its inhabitants untold sums. Meanwhile, the mayor and city council consulted with experts, its neighbor cities and the public, attempting to learn from the mistakes made by municipalities during the heady days of a play moving into increasingly urban, uncharted territories — cities like Flower Mound, which opted for setbacks from houses of 1,500 feet, but only after dozens of wells were sunk within its borders. They used as a template Southlake's negotiations with XTO and the "laundry list" of concessions the company willingly made: Things like continuous air monitoring and pre- and post-drilling testing of all water wells within 2,000 feet. "What we tried to do," Mayor John Terrell says, "was take what they had agreed to and codify it."

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Brantley Hargrove

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