Gas drilling revisions made public

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City officials Tuesday made public the revisions to the city’s gas drilling ordinance.

The staff spent the last six months revising the ordinance based on recommendations of a City Council-appointed gas drilling task force.

That task force met between February and April and developed 40 recommendations for the new ordinance.

Denton residents have been stumped for years — some since Robson Ranch residents clashed with gas drilling in 2007 and others when drilling came to Rayzor Ranch in 2009 — for rules that better protect human health and safety when natural gas production moves into neighborhoods.

In various ways, residents have asked that operators be required to use the latest technology to protect air quality and the best practices for protecting soil and water, too. They have also asked for greater setbacks from production equipment and more transparency with the public in permitting.

Tuesday, the city responded by posting the 42-page document on the gas well inspection’s page of the city website (www.cityofdenton.com/gaswellinspections ).

In the document, editor’s notes highlight those revisions inspired by the task force and its recommendations. The city also published a disclaimer saying that the ordinance revisions are still under review and that they do not include recommendations from a minority report by two members of the task force. The City Council has asked that those recommendations be included, as well.

The task force made recommendations to the city; it did not actually write the new rules. That job went to the city staff.

Gas well inspector Darren Groth was not available for comment Tuesday.

Overall, the task force made general recommendations, not specific suggestions.

The task force made 10 recommendations focusing on air quality. A few were specific, others were general. One general recommendation asked the city to “reference other applicable local, state and federal rules, laws and regulations” for air quality rules.

The city staff and consulting attorneys translated that general recommendation several ways, according to the editor’s notes on the revised ordinance.

First, they refined definitions for fracturing (pressure-pumping used to get a well to produce), flowback (the residual fluids from a completed well) and lightning protection. Then, they added three new rules.

One rule cites Texas Department of State Health Services regulations and requires operators to identify any equipment that contained naturally occurring radioactive material.

Another rule cites the National Fire Protection Association code and requires tank batteries to be equipped with a lightning arrestor and foam system. Finally, they cite the Society for Protective Coatings and require that tank batteries and equipment be painted.

Although the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency recently adopted many new rules governing air quality in oil and gas operations, they were not referenced in the revision notes.

The task force clashed over whether to make any recommendations about noise. They agreed to evaluate for low-frequency noise, but could not agree on requiring ambient noise studies for every site.

However, the city was already requiring an ambient noise level be measured for a 72-hour period, pre-drilling. The city staff proposed revisions to make that study part of the application process. They added a second paragraph that specifies frequency ranges that would be measured and how they would be measured, including 16 hertz, about the lowest frequency most people can hear sound waves.

Operators still must get a special-use permit to drill in many parts of the city, a process that increases the transparency of permitting to the public. But the city has not changed the rules for areas of the city that are not zoned or are considered “rural residential.” There, operators are allowed to drill “by right,” and residents may not know when the city has approved a permit for a new gas well.

Then, residents will be protected only by the city’s 1,000-foot setback, which was implemented in August 2010. However, the Planning and Zoning Commission has the authority to reduce the 1,000-foot setbacks to 500 feet, and an operator may still seek waivers to reduce that even further, to 250 feet, if the operator gets signed consent of all the property owners. The ordinance remains silent on the rights of tenants in such an agreement; the task force made no recommendations on setbacks.

Writing his reaction to Monday’s meeting — when the task force met but did not see the revisions — resident Adam Briggle called the process too compartmentalized, having separated experts and their technical language from the people’s concepts and ideas.

“But in reality the language is the stuff of politics — it is where values take concrete form,” Briggle wrote on Denton Drilling, a year-old blog (dentondrilling.blogspot.com) devoted to the topic.

The city plans another closed session and work session with the gas well task force Oct. 22.

The Denton Stakeholders Drilling Advisory Group, led by Briggle, will conduct a meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Room 180 of the University of North Texas Business Leadership Building to help residents understand and comment on the revised ordinance. Both residents and industry have 10 days to submit comments on the new rules.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is pheinkel-wolfe@dentonrc.com .


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