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.