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.
The drilling interests argue it's not their gas. They say all that gas comes from geological formations unrelated to the ones they are busy busting up underground. They say people in those regions have always been able to light their water on fire.
So we took $30 million from the drilling companies. We're going to have tons of pollution, radioactive pipes and maybe even flaming faucets. And the city will deal with fires, explosions, stuff like that, on a case by case basis, as they come along.
What Hunt has proposed and the city council will vote on next month is a task force to look at the issues and recommend changes to the city's drilling ordinance. Those changes might include any number of things that would reinforce public safety without denying the energy companies the right to exercise their leases.
Raymond Crawford, one of the activists pushing for the task force, says the city council needs good basic information so that it can "pull apart the gas ordinance...and make that ordinance so tight and so strong that it is going to protect the residents.
"It can be done," he says. "Will there be accidents? Probably. Will there be some leaks? Probably. But as it is now, there is no air monitoring required. There is no reporting of spills required and (drilling) 300 feet from your bedroom window is the law."
Jim Schermbeck, head of a group called Downwinders At Risk and unofficial dean of the state's clean air activism community, argues that all local officials—not just in Dallas—have an obligation to learn about the health risks associated with fracking.
"Here is a new source of things we know can give you cancer and known neurotoxins," he says. "People in the Fort Worth area are literally now swimming in a sea of this stuff that's getting higher and higher as more facilities come into the area and into the urban environment, and you are increasing everybody's exposure to this."
Schermbeck points out that regulating the actual drilling process itself is only a beginning. "The drilling rigs are just the front lines, the shock troops of this whole thing. You start letting drilling rigs come into a neighborhood, and then you need the pipelines and then you need the compressors."
Gas companies use powerful compressors, often driven by diesel engines, to squeeze high volumes of gas into pipelines and push it along. Schermbeck, whose group spent decades fighting caustic pollution from huge cement plants in Midlothian, says compressors are comparable to cement plants as sources of damaging volatile organic compounds or VOCs.
"One compressor, my God, you're getting a machine that puts out the same amount of VOCs in a year as one of those cement plants," he says.
The city council has been resistant to Hunt's calls for a task force. Councilman Dave Neumann, whose West Dallas district is directly affected, dithered on the issue and ultimately failed to come up with a proposal.
Last week Hunt joined council members Pauline Medrano, Tennell Atkins, Vonciel Hill and Carolyn Davis in signing a request that the task force be placed on the city council agenda—enough signatures to force Mayor Dwaine Caraway to schedule it.
The council has been generally reluctant to tackle this crucial public safety question, and I think we can all guess the two main reasons: 1) They don't want to look stupid for having signed those leases and gotten the city $30 million in hock to the drillers before knowing what they were doing. And, 2) They're afraid the drillers will sue them.
That has been the first position of the drilling companies when other smaller communities in the area have moved toward tighter regulation. They always say they're going to sue.
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But you know what? The city gets sued every day. They dare people to sue them. I've written about it lots of times. I think of ordinary citizens like Josh and Jenn Terry, whose small apartment building project in North Oak Cliff was torpedoed by a bunch of sleazy under-the-table city council politics. The city's attitude toward them was, You want to sue us? Bring it on, suckers. We got a whole floor full of lawyers, and we pay them their salaries every day anyway.
Even if the city made a stupid deal on some leases, it did not sign away its basic police powers or its moral obligation to protect the health and safety of its citizens.
I asked Hunt what her goals would be for the task force she has proposed. "First and foremost," she said, "it's to protect our neighborhoods. "We need to take a step back, and we need to look at the environmental issues associated with fracking. What is the current science on the safety of fracking? And go from there."
She does make sense. But that is also why she is often in the minority on our current city council.