Schutze

Maybe City Council Should Have Asked Some Questions Before Taking Drillers' Money.

The city of Dallas website has a "frequently asked questions" thing about gas well drilling. It reminds me a lot of TEPCO, the company whose nuclear reactors are melting in Japan.

Like TEPCO, the city believes that good news is better than the truth. Here is a sampling. A frequently asked question is, "Does the drilling harm the environment?"

The city's answer: "Drilling for natural gas is more environmentally friendly than drilling for oil..."

Oh...my...goodness. Maybe you read our March 10 cover story, "Toxic Avenger," written by Patrick Michels. Michels explained how the stunning volume of pollution from gas well drilling in North Texas helped push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the last year to seize some areas of air pollution enforcement from the control of Texas state government—an extraordinary development.

The drilling pollution is that bad.

In just a few short years seriously toxic air pollution from drilling has grown to 165 tons of bad crap in the air per day in the five-county area around Fort Worth. To put that in perspective, all of the car and truck traffic in the same area produces 121 tons of bad crap in the air per day.

Gas drilling, in other words, can quickly outstrip auto emissions, even in an area that includes dense urban and suburban development.

The City Hall FAQ goes on: "What emergency plans are in place in case of an accident?

"In the case of gas wells, it has been determined that one plan is not a viable alternative..."

I believe what they are trying to say there is, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," even though current Dallas city ordinances allow drilling operations within 300 feet of homes and schools.

All of this is pertinent because in the next few weeks the city council is finally going to tackle the questions of drilling safety and pollution in the city. City council member Angela Hunt has led the way on the issue by proposing the council form a task force, up for a vote April 20.

Don't get your hopes up. Some of the background here is not just worrisome. It's scary. In 2008 the city council voted to award gas drilling leases on city-owned land to two energy companies.

Wait. Let me go over this again.

This is before the city knows squat about hydraulic fracturing or fracking, as the drilling technique in this area is called. This is before they even devise a safety plan of any kind to deal with fires, explosions or toxic releases. This is before they even raise the question of whether fracking should be allowed inside the city on private land. They sell leases to two big energy companies to allow fracking on city-owned land.

A single council member—Hunt—voted against the leases. She told the rest of the council at the time she thought it was crazy to bind the city to this kind of obligation without doing an ounce of research.

Hunt, a lawyer, warned them it was going to come back to bite them. Why would they sign a contract obligating the city to allow gas drilling in and near neighborhoods when the council had never explored or even considered the issue of safety?

So guess where we are now. The city has accepted $30 million for the leases from those two energy companies. Now the companies want to drill. They are seeking permits for wells near neighborhoods in far west and far southwest Dallas.

It's hard to fault the companies. They paid the money. We took the money. They want what they paid for.

But it's even harder to dismiss the anguish in the neighborhoods where the drilling would take place. In the last year, people here and all over the nation have been bombarded with terrible news about fracking—poisoned ground water, livestock die-offs, flaming faucets, the whole nine yards. Most of it has been disputed, of course, by the drilling industry.

But some things can't be disputed—the horrific pollution numbers reported in Michel's story, for example. And the safety questions, even when the industry disputes them, are eerily compelling.

Fracking is a way to extract natural gas locked inside deep layers of shale. Drillers pump millions of gallons of water into the wells under pressure to crack the rock. The water is spiked with a brew of toxic chemicals. Millions of gallons of poisoned water must be trucked off for disposal somewhere. Drilling pipes, when they come out of the ground, are sometimes so radioactive that scrap yards won't accept them.

The flaming faucets issue has to do with natural gas getting into ground water and coming up into houses from water wells. An endless loop of flaming faucets videos on YouTube makes it impossible to deny that this domestic black magic trick actually does occur in areas where there have been fracking operations.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze