Dawn Cobb: Citizens of the Shale

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Dawn Cobb

In a 23-county region sitting atop the gas-rich deposits of the Barnett Shale, concerns of water contamination, airborne pollutants, noise and lifestyle changes have coexisted with new job opportunities, rising incomes for communities and their residents, and significant advances by some companies in safeguarding the environment.

Five graduate students, the current Mayborn Fellow at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism and professor George Getschow, formerly with The Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer finalist, worked side by side with the editors and staff of the Denton Record-Chronicle to look at the increasingly complex and controversial issues surrounding rampant gas development in our region.

Reviewing the complex issues of Barnett Shale gas extraction has taken months of research. The Denton Record-Chronicle made its initial open-records request of the Texas Railroad Commission for the project last summer, planning for its annual participation in Sunshine Week, a nationwide exercise of open-records laws by newspapers and other journalists observed during the month of March.

The initial request resulted in a database of 21,593 gas well inspection records from January 2007 to July 2010. The data provided a foundation for the Mayborn students and the Record-Chronicle staff to probe further, conducting numerous interviews with operators, regulators, local officials, ranchers, homeowners, environmentalists, researchers and others who have a stake in the shale's development. Both the students and our staff made follow-up requests, gathering thousands of additional pages of inspection records, reports, correspondence and more databases, in order to tell these newest stories of the shale.

What evolved was not a black-and-white picture, but a multi-dimensional view illuminating concerns among residents unaccustomed to watching giant rigs drilling above lush, green lawns and next to $200,000-plus homes, and an industry that finds itself for the first time dealing with city regulations governing what companies can and cannot do and a growing chorus of neighbors protesting their presence in their communities.

All of the frenetic drilling in the Barnett Shale set in motion a collision course from the beginning - between industry and individuals, with the movement of the gas drilling into more populated areas, using horizontal fracturing techniques to extract gas. This collision in the Barnett Shale between the state's historic pursuit of oil and gas and its burgeoning population along Interstate 35 is at the heart of this series. And, in this case, the most prolific gas reserves happen to be located along Texas' most populous corridor.

Our five-day "Citizens of the Shale" series explores the far-flung impact of gas development - from residents' concerns about their health and changing way of life to industry practices for safeguarding the environment.

Research also focused on the Texas Legislature's efforts to keep up with a fast-moving industry with limited state manpower and resources - especially during a budget-crunch session with looming deficits.

Among the thousands of documents reviewed for this series, some were selected to post online for perusal along with the series. The information is there for readers to consume and contemplate.

This series will not answer everyone's questions. Our sole mission is to provide in-depth information about the ongoing gas development in North Texas to help residents and the industry become more knowledgeable about each other's concerns and viewpoints, and to examine whether the state is doing enough to protect the welfare of its residents.

DAWN COBB is managing editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle. She can be reached at 940-566-6879 or by e-mail at dcobb@dentonrc.com.


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