OK, pretend you have to bet money on this. Here's the set-up. On one hand, you've got these huge natural gas drilling companies coming down the road with their gigantic rigs, tons of money and very expensive haircuts.
Where are they headed? Oh, no! They're headed to Dallas City Hall, the concrete castle on Marilla Street where no good comes of anything. City Hall might as well have a big sign over the door that says, "We hate not the citizens, nor do we love them. We simply do not acknowledge their grubby little existences."
Something terrible is about to happen, right? Surely the drilling companies are going to get City Hall to let them drill for natural gas inside day-care centers.
So here's what I want you to bet on: There's this guy who designs needlepoint patterns for a living. If you don't know what needlepoint is, Google it. No, wait. That's just going to tell you it's "a form of counted thread embroidery." Ask your grandmother instead.
OK, so the needlepoint guy goes to City Hall, the Castle of We-Don't-Even-See-You, to whup up on the drilling companies with all that money and those haircuts. For some reason he thinks it's his job to prevent atrocity.
Ladies and gentlemen, please place your bets. Gas? Needlepoint? Who wins?
That's right: Needlepoint.
Really. The needlepoint guy beat the gas drilling companies at City Hall last week. I am not making this up.
It was only a battle, not the war. Even people on Needlepoint's side offer caution about coming challenges. They know they're still down in the dungeons of the Castle of Bad, nowhere near daylight yet. But they're not dead, and they just won a sword fight.
Last week Raymond Crawford and a posse of citizen insurgents succeeded in persuading the Dallas city council to step back, breathe deeply and take a long, hard look at safety and environmental concerns associated with gas drilling operations within the city limits.
I couldn't believe it. Forget gas. As I sat there in the peanut gallery, it wasn't even the gas thing that struck me. It was the winning. It was the fact that citizen activists came to City Hall and turned the beast. At all. Even once. On any issue. They could have been pushing an ordinance making it illegal for trucks to run over old ladies. I would have been sitting in back, betting on the trucks.
The event was a city council briefing session, not an official meeting, so the council didn't actually vote on anything. But after months of resistance, heel-dragging and general arrogance, a clear majority of the council finally agreed last week that the city needs a special commission on drilling safety. They vowed to create one at the first official opportunity.
Once formed, the commission will recommend changes to the existing city regulations that control drilling in Dallas. The panel—made up of a fairly even mix of citizens, industry reps and officials—will have no teeth. It will only be able to recommend changes to the law—changes the city council will then enact or ignore. But almost anything they come up with will be an improvement over the current regulations, which, as currently written, in paragraph B of section five, subsection six in chapter 27 of the city code, read: "Drill your ass off, whadda we care?"
A day after the briefing session, I called Jim Schermbeck, the go-to guy on clean-air activism in Texas. He runs Downwinders at Risk, a group that has fought dirty cement kilns in North Texas for decades. He's a writer, filmmaker, the guy who testifies, the guru. I wanted to know if I was making too much of Crawford and his group.
"If it hadn't been for what Ray did," Schermbeck said, "none of this would be happening now. I mean none of it. So from that perspective, it is a tremendous vindication of how one person can change history.
Crawford didn't do it alone, Schermbeck pointed out. Several other people played major roles. It was very much a group effort. Crawford will tell you the same thing. But he was the catalyst.
"He built that group," Schermbeck said. "He got people involved. He got us [Downwinders] involved. He did his homework. He went out and organized his community along with other people."
Before drilling came into his life, Crawford says, he wasn't looking to play activist.
"I don't do this for a living, nor did I ever want to. I design needlepoint. I've been doing it since 1996," he says. "I own my own company and sell to the trade and go to trade shows, and 99.9 percent of my customers are women."
A year ago, though, an email popped up on his computer informing him that XTO wanted to drill near his neighborhood in southwest Oak Cliff. He got curious, started Googling and reading, and eventually launched into a year of intensive effort.
He says he and his fellow citizens started out with lots of conviction but not much faith they could really win. But six months ago they attended their first big meeting at City Hall, to ask a city board not to grant a drilling permit to XTO Energy, a partner with Exxon-Mobil.
"We were like scared little rabbits going head to head with XTO," he says. "We went up there and kind of like just pleaded our case."
The results were more than they could have hoped for. The board sided with them.
"Boom," Crawford says. "They said, 'You know, we don't think we should approve this.' XTO was as surprised as we were."
He and his citizen posse kept pushing—emailing city board members, calling them, button-holing them after public meetings, finally weaseling their way in to actually meet with them in their offices. They did exhaustive research, never going to a meeting unprepared. In other words, they did all the same work the high-dollar lobbyists get paid to do on the other side—but for no dollars. When Crawford and his group showed up at last week's council briefing, it was clear that all of the city staff and most of the council knew who they were and had either met with them or at least exchanged calls and emails.
That's not an easy thing to pull off in Dallas. Cherelle Blazer, who has a masters in environmental science from Yale and has worked as an environmental lobbyist in Washington, says volunteering with Crawford on the drilling issue in Dallas has been eye-opening.
She moved to Dallas four years ago, and it was immediately apparent to her that City Hall wasn't eager to be intruded upon by its citizens.
"They make it awfully difficult for any public engagement," she says. "You have the thing where you have to pay for parking, and everything happens in the middle of the day when working people must work...They put up really large hurdles to any public engagement."
But it was equally clear to her, as soon as she started showing up, that great mischief occurs when there are no informed citizens to keep watch. She was taken aback at last week's briefing, for example, when she heard city staff tell council members things that Blazer knew to be patently untrue.
"Much of what they said in their presentation was absolutely false," she said.
For example, a council member asked a city staffer what the existing regulations ("Drill your ass off") were based on, and the city staffer cited several studies and reports. But Blazer, who's familiar with each source the staffer cited, knew that all of them had been published years after the city's existing ordinance was passed.
None of them—not Crawford, not Schermbeck, not Blazer—told me that last week's outcome means they've got the drilling companies on the run. They all counted last week's win as a decent little battle in a long war to come.
But if the council sticks to its word, it will create a commission to study natural gas drilling—especially the method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is the source of the biggest environmental worries. Based on that study, which may take a year or more, the commission will recommend improvements to the city laws on drilling—maybe just drill half your ass off or something.
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The counter example is Fort Worth, where this kind of drilling has been underway for years, and where drilling companies slipped thousands of wells into the city before officials had any inkling of the dangers. Since then, studies by the EPA and by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have predicted that air pollution from fracking in Fort Worth will soon outpace all pollution from trucks and automobiles, previously the biggest sources.
Schermbeck has his own theory about why Dallas officials might be more willing to regulate than Fort Worth. He says Fort Worth has way more gas in the ground, which means way more money on the table—both for the city, in terms of royalties and fees, and for private citizens who own the rights to valuable deposits.
Property rights are another piece of it that will have to be hammered out. At the end of last week's hearing, Steve Fort, owner of drilling company Trinity East, made an eloquent appeal for the interests of people who own mineral rights. Owners of these deposits aren't going to want to have that value taken away from them by fiat.
He's right. A lot of college plans and house payments and medical bills are being paid for with gas royalties in Fort Worth these days. If people in Dallas think they've got similar assets under their property, it's hard to imagine they will give them up without a fight. But all these issues will get worked out. And the cool part is there will be citizens at the table—smart, tough, energetic people who will go to City Hall because they think they have a right to go. That's big for Dallas. Even bigger than gas.