What the Frack: Task Force Isn't Done, But City Moves Closer to Issuing First Drilling Permit

XTO and Trinity East, two of the companies that have paid the city big money and signed leases to drill for gas within the city limits, have agreed to wait 30 months while the city rewrites its gas drilling ordinance. But one company has no such deal with the city: Chief Oil & Gas, which, we discovered at yesterday's meeting of the gas drilling task force, is moving ahead with its longstanding plans to drill on a site owned by Luminant at North Lake, near Coppell but within the Dallas city limits. "Luminant is providing the minerals and the land. Chief is providing the know-how and the drilling," said Dallas Cothrum of Masterplan, the land-use consulting company representing Chief.

In order to drill, companies must obtain site-specific zoning permission from city council -- a specific use permit (SUP) -- as well as a city permit, which is issued according to technical standards, providing that the company submits materials demonstrating that they are in accordance with the city's current drilling ordinance. Meanwhile, the Dallas drilling task force is crafting updated ordinance recommendations, which they will vote on next month before submitting to the city council.

But before it began revising its drilling ordinance, the city approved five SUPs for drilling sites, and Chief is the only one currently moving forward in the permitting process, as documented in the letter below from Masterplan, which ends with the line, "Finally, I cannot remember an occurrence when it took the city so long to issue a permit for an allowed use."

Theresa O'Donnell, the city's director of Sustainable Development and Construction, said her office has requested additional information from Chief. And if the company complies with the current ordinance, she said, the city must grant a permit allowing fracking on the site. Currently, she said during her zoning presentation to the drilling task force yesterday, the application is "substantially complete."

If a permit is issued, there is legally nothing stopping Chief from drilling on the site. "We're perfecting our package and plan to resubmit this week," said Cothrum. Depending on a variety of factors, drilling could begin before the end of the year -- which is what Chief said last year, following the resolution of a host of other controversies involving the property.

"We want to see if there's gas there," Cothrum said. "We wouldn't have gone through the process if we weren't serious about finding out if there's gas at North Lake."

The North Lake location is relatively secluded from residential neighborhoods, O'Donnell told the task force. "We could see the activity," she said, and "watch the process without having any immediately adjacent neighbors that are affected by it."

Potential fracking sites for which the city has granted SUPs will be held to the city's current ordinance rather than being forced to comply with the revisions currently under consideration. "They'd be perfectly within their rights to say no [to complying with a revised ordinance], but we could ask," O'Donnell said, addressing this issue yesterday during her zoning and permitting presentation to the drilling task force. She told Unfair Park that, generally, "You get to play by the set of rules that are in place at the time of your application."

O'Donnell made it clear that Dallas does not have a moratorium on fracking, but reiterated that until now, gas drilling companies that have paid the city millions for leases have voluntarily stalled their applications.

"We've asked them to hold off," she said. "They're just voluntarily keeping their application suspended."

But with Chief's pursuance of a drilling permit, the promise is disintegrating. She told the task force that companies holding those leases "could come in and submit all their documentation for a permit this afternoon if they would like." In other words: Dallas could be fracked.North Lake Permit

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