Lost drilling papers found

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Two gas wells lacking city permits got approval from fire marshal in ’04

A natural gas well site near Apogee Stadium that officials said lacked city permits actually received drilling permits years ago, Denton's planning director said Monday.

City workers recently discovered that the city fire marshal's office issued drilling permits for the site's two gas wells in 2004, Mark Cunningham said during a meeting of Denton's gas well task force.

Even so, the site still needs a specific-use permit and an approved site plan to be in full compliance with city code, and both applications are on hold after the City Council approved a moratorium last week, Cunningham said.

The surprise announcement came as the task force started debating how to bring unpermitted wells into compliance. Task force member Vicki Oppenheim, an environmental planner, said the issue deserved discussion, citing the wells near the new University of North Texas stadium and several older wells that she said only recently received city permits.

The wells near Apogee Stadium attracted attention last year when Dallas-based Eagleridge Operating LLC sought a specific-use permit to operate the nearly 3-acre site on South Bonnie Brae Street. The wells were drilled years before Eagleridge acquired them, and city officials said they had no record of prior owners obtaining city permits. The site has permits from the Texas Railroad Commission, the state regulatory agency over oil and gas.

Supporters of stricter gas drilling regulations demanded that the city fine the companies involved, but that appeared unlikely after the city took responsibility for the error. Cunningham announced in December that a prior operator had approached the city to permit the site in 2004 but was mistakenly told no permit was needed because UNT owned the land.

The university never owned the drilling site, although it has a mineral interest in one of the wells.

In an interview after Monday's meeting, Cunningham stood by his explanation from December, saying the fire marshal's office issued drilling permits independently of the planning department, which had determined no city permits were needed. The city created a single division over gas drilling last year to avoid such confusion happening again, Cunningham said.

The error predated Cunningham, who came to Denton in 2008, and Darren Groth, hired last year to lead the gas well inspections division.

Cunningham said Eagleridge has amended its specific-use permit application to show four new gas wells at the site.

The council voted last week to impose a 120-day moratorium on new gas drilling and production permits. During that time, city staff and task force members are supposed to complete their review of current drilling regulations and offer recommended changes.

The task force cast a series of votes Monday related to city inspections, including a proposal establishing a process and timeline to bring unpermitted wells into compliance. The City Council ultimately must approve any new regulations.

The panel also endorsed disclosing inspection reports on the city's website, requiring companies to provide more equipment testing reports, and investigating ways to apply modern regulations to older sites when they expand or modify their operations.

The panel delayed action on two proposals from John Siegmund, a retired petroleum engineer and industry official, that would have eliminated an existing requirement for masonry fences at gas sites and added language to the ordinance "welcoming responsible gas operators to Denton."

Siegmund said he made the proposal welcoming drillers to counteract media coverage and public statements critical toward the industry. Other task force members said opinionated statements might fit in the preamble to an ordinance but shouldn't go into the ordinance itself.

On fences, Siegmund said he believes see-through fences could be more attractive and allow the public to see what goes on inside the walls. Other task force members said they would address fences at a future meeting.

The next task force meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is lmbrown@dentonrc.com .


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