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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Opinion/Editorial regarding new gas drilling ordinances in Denton Tx

The proposed city gas drilling ordinance falls short of being the strictest legal ordinance.

In the past few years, a new presence has been added to skylines across urban and suburban North Texas- the gas rig. Without a doubt, as a nation we need domestic sources of energy- the cleaner the better. So it goes without saying that the gas industry is here for the long haul. Living, as we do, in a civilized society, we expect a certain decorum among our neighbors to keep the peace. The same should be said for our industries, including gas drilling.

Gas drilling in its current incarnation as hydraulic fracturing, is messy business, and that holds to true for the regulation of it as well. Contrary to popular belief, there is very little regulation of hydraulic fracturing. The regulatory structure governing gas drilling in Texas is an unholy marriage of Wild West lawlessness and bureaucratic buck-passing, shape-shifting and all-around obfuscation at every level. The few regulations that do exist are often “interpreted” away to the point of irrelevance by our civil servants in government.

Even within this profoundly broken framework, however, there is some room to protect the citizens. At the city level, that comes in the form of ordinances governing land use. Denton is currently rewriting its gas drilling ordinance in response to the rapidly changing energy production landscape. Proponents of drilling are quick to point out that drilling is as much a part of Texas’s heritage as cowboys and longhorns. That is undoubtedly true, but what has changed is the way we drill and where we drill. Hydraulic fracturing is a new technology and is very much a part of the urban landscape in North Texas. Our city leaders were right to recognize that our rules need to catch up with the new rules of the game.

On April 20, 2010 the City Council met in a work session to address the issues surrounding a new gas well ordinance for Denton. In that session the City Council members, again and again, charged the staff with researching and drafting the strictest possible gas drilling ordinance. After that work session, city staff met and decided to divide the process into two phases. According to the Planning and Zoning Agenda Information Sheet for July 14, the staff determined that “due to the magnitude and complexity of the topic, it would be best to approach the task [of drafting a new gas drilling ordinance] in two (2) phases.”

During Phase I, the city makes “initial amendment[s]” to the ordinance regarding: 1) a new fee structure; 2) revised noise levels; 3) increased screening requirements; 4) setback increases; 5) amended language regarding urban gas well plats, permits and site plans. In Phase II, approximately six months will be devoted to a comprehensive rewrite of the gas well ordinance accomplished while “consulting with various gas well experts.” On July 14, 2010 city staff publicly presented their proposed ordinance to the Planning and Zoning Committee.


While doing their homework, city staff discovered the following information: each gas well development plat costs $4,930.00 for the city and each gas well special use permit costs $12,435.00. Currently, the fees for these are $260.00 and $2,150.00, respectively. That means that each gas well costs the city taxpayers $4670.00- unless a Special Use Permit is required, in which case it costs the taxpayers $10,285.00. Fortunately, the proposed ordinance attempts to close this gap by increasing the fees assessed to $4,670.00 and $10,285.00. Unfortunately, these fees don’t cover the millions of dollars in subsidy the Denton taxpayers have already paid for gas companies to drill here.

Besides the subsidy, there are other glaring omissions. Notably, there is no requirement for “green completion.” This means that flaring will still be allowed under the rewrite. Flaring is not allowed in Southlake or DFW Airport. Further, there is no requirement that a gas company drill using best available practices, like a “closed loop system” which is used to prevent avoidable waste and contamination during the drilling process. Additionally, the city staff recommended a variance from the 1000 foot setback rule, which, thankfully, the Planning and Zoning Committee recommends be denied.

City attorney Jerry Drake, who, like his co-worker Mark Cunningham, was inappropriately and inexplicably seated in between Planning and Zoning Committee members, made no effort to address these glaring omissions in the proposed code. Instead, he offered a warning to those opposing the proposed ordinance. Basically, if citizens oppose this ordinance, we have to keep our old useless ordinance for the foreseeable future. Is that what we want? Well is it?

With respect to Mr. Drake and the city staff who put hard work into this proposal, please do not insult our intelligence with these false choices. It was city staff- not the city council- who created the two-phase process. Everyone understands the complexity and enormity of this task, so why is the city determined to rush through it with a watered-down ordinance? The city council gave the staff one charge time and time again- draft the strictest possible ordinance for Denton. Why is it that we are modeling our ordinance off of cities that have suspended gas drilling until they can sort their code out?

Perhaps the real question is, which is worse? For a city staff to ignore its public charge or for there to be no explanation to the public of why that charge has been ignored? The silence on this issue is deafening.

In all likelihood, the proposed ordinance will be passed by City Council. What remains to be seen is if we have lost all hope for the “strictest possible ordinance” or if the City Council will have the intestinal fortitude to stick to their word and accept nothing less than the strictest possible ordinance in “Phase II” of the rewrite.


Sara Bagheri is a Denton attorney with a degree in Environmental and Natural Resources Law. She currently represents Texans for Responsible and Accountable Energy Development. If you have questions for her regarding gas drilling regulation, she can be reached at sara.bagheri.law@gmail.com.


Unknown said...

Having grown up in the West Texas oil patch, there are some differences between where I grew up, in Odessa, and where I live today, in Denton. Ground water West Texas has been contaminated for decades by drilling practices and waste water injection. If you have not noticed, there isn't much pooling of water in West Texas like there is in North Texas. We consume lake water in the urban parts of North Texas and it's only those who have water wells that will suffer the contamination that makes well water in West Texas so foul. The "oil men" will tell you that the taste is due to "disolved solids". The "oil men" WON'T tell you that the disolved solids were not there before the oil boom OR that those "disolved solids" got in the water as a direct result of drilling and hydraulic fracturing of petroleum bearing formations and that the man-made fractures also permiate aquifer formations upon which human beings depend.

Because the overwhelming number of North Texans do NOT drink well water, they won't be consuming tainted well water.

It is all about "perspective" and when the oil boom in North Texas has come and gone, rural water consumers will bear the true cost of exploration, not the "city dwellers".

Urban drilling is more of a nuisance to city dwellers than an environmental problem they can identify with, yet it is the environmental impact that will have long term negative effects on homo sapiens in North Texas. Surviving without petroleum is a piece of cake and you can't say that about drinking water. We must not allow short sighted greed to overcome the long term health of our species on Planet Earth. Yet, that is what we see ostensibly intelligent government representatives of "We the People" do every day in Texas.

I've heard good Democrats lately cheer about a thousand dollar royalty check with small regard to the health and welfare of future generations. Wall Street Greed, as a tragic illness, has been inflicted upon us and our voices must be clear, cogent, and uncompromising.

scubawithdogs said...

This is Cathy McMullen TRAED and I did speak at the last EPA meeting in Fort Worth about water use. I won't go into all the details but basically it stated: The average person consumes 2,300,000 gallons of water in their lifetime. I 2009 in three state hydralic fracturing used over 5 billion gallons of water When you do the math that is as much water as 230,000 people consume in a lifetime. This equates to taking the water supply away from a city the size of Lubbock for 70 years or one generation.

We are not just fighting on the urban front but all front. I moved to Denton from rural Wise County because I was sick of seeing cows drinking from fracturing pits, the emissions no one cares about, and a destruction of a way of life I had grown to love.

I keep my eyes very closely on the water consumption issues and will bring up that very issue at the next meeting with the EPA and TCEQ August the 2nd in Arlington.

I am very concerned with T Boone Pickens plan to buy up all the water right in West Texas and then sell the water to the Dallas area. What will become of the rural water user and who is watching out for their rights.

Cathy McMullen
805 Ector
Denton, TX 76201