Gas Drilling Task Force Absorbs More Info as It Inches Closer to Making Reg Recommendations

Yesterday afternoon, the city's gas drilling task force heard presentations (slideshows here) from three experts who explained the impact of drilling on noise levels, geology and real estate values. Which was exciting as it sounds: The meeting was moved from City Hall's sixth floor to a lower-level auditorium, where the energy in the room waned from the usual tack-sharp presenting and questioning. The small crowd was dispersed throughout rows of empty seats, the task force sat with their backs to the audience, the air conditioning was on the fritz, and a wide stage and huge projector screen dwarfed the presenters. Gone was the urgency of earlier meetings; perhaps the marathon's taking its toll.

Thankfully, the task force only has three remaining meetings before they begin drafting ordinance recommendations. It takes increasingly more to surprise them, though they're highly engaged with specific questions every week.

Yesterday's meeting began promisingly enough, with anti-drilling activists sending out pre-show emails to task force chair Lois Finkelman and Unfair Park about one presenter in particular, who, said one missive, is a better spokesman for Chesapeake Energy than anyone Chesapeake could throw up there. That man is ...

... Ken Morgan, a geology professor who founded and directs the Energy Institute at TCU, where there is drilling on campus). But there were no fireworks, merely one more lecture. Morgan spoke to the task force about the Barnett Shale formation and why it lends itself to drilling. Like many effective professors, he implemented a metaphor at every turn.

"Think of [the shale] like a hotel," he said. "It's a hotel that is 40 stories thick in places and its 5,000 square miles. There are billions and billions of rooms in there. Hit it with a water frack, and it busts up billions of rooms with glass doors."

That, like a lesson from the adult equivalent of Schoolhouse Rock, is how gas is released.

"It isn't rocket science," Morgan said of fracking. "It works and it works beautifully." That's as long as drilling doesn't take place along a fault line, he said. If that were to happen, complications can arise, but gas companies typically do their best to avoid faults.

"Bottom line is it's a very simple rock, but it has a major impact economically," Morgan said.

The second presenter, Don Behrens of Behrens and Associates Environmental Noise Control, had helped the Fort Worth Task Force when they were shaping the city's ordinance. And when it comes to drilling, Behrens said, "sound can be dealt with" with monitoring, investment and commitment. It is an annoyance more so than a health threat, he said, and thick sound walls and other provisions are highly effective.

The "best defense" in sound management, he said, is taking baseline readings before drilling begins to establish normal sound levels at different times throughout the day and week.

Behrens discussed prescriptive versus performance regulation: establishing an acceptable noise level rather than dictating the materials used to muffle fracking. "You just need to give them guidance as far as what you're going to accept," he told the task force.

Real estate expert Dan Wright, the day's final speaker, presented two real estate studies. The first addressed drilling's effect on home prices in Arlington in 2009; the second, home prices in Flower Mound a year later. The Arlington study showed little impact on home values, and the Flower Mound study showed a small impact on higher-valued homes. Though these were the general trends, he said, if a drilling site was in clear view of an individual home, it had a negative impact.

Finkelman wrapped up the meeting urging everyone to think about Behrens's statement about prescriptive versus performance regulation. City staff is preparing a comparative worksheet about neighboring cities' ordinances and provisions that might already exist elsewhere in Dallas's ordinances. Over the next few weeks, the task force will discuss air quality, water-related issues and zoning regulations. After that, they'll be molding all of this information into their recommendations to the city council concerning a new Dallas drilling regulation.

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