The distance between Guyer High School and some of the six gas wells on campus would be like an easy throw to home plate for former outfielder Connor Herriage — 300 feet or less.
When the school was built in 2005, city government regulations required 500 feet between gas wells and “places of assembly” to protect people from fire, odors and chemical emissions. However, when a property owner and an energy company agreed, the city could allow them to shrink that distance to the fire-code minimum — 250 feet.
That minimal distance allowed the Denton school district to wedge ballfields, tennis courts, an agricultural barn, parking lots and the main classroom building itself between six gas wells and thousands of feet of high-pressure pipeline. This summer, Denton ISD is adding more to the Guyer campus: a new school for ninth-graders and more parking.
The expansion means more than 200 staff members and 3,000 students will share the 80-acre campus with the aging gas wells, tanks and pipelines.
Over the past several months, Guyer's proximity to aging gas wells has stimulated vigorous debate in Denton.
Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners, said his members have seen communities grow and encroach on their production sites. However, if producers and communities talk with each other, they can avoid problems.
"Communication and collaboration are key in addressing or resolving issues before they occur," Longanecker said in an email to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
An abandoned water well near Guyer began leaking a profuse amount of methane last fall. But state and local inspectors determined a gas well much farther away was the likely culprit.
In April, a home in Firestone, Colo., exploded, killing two people and severely injuring another. Colorado officials linked the explosion to a severed pipeline from an energy company’s well. In Texas, as in Colorado, new neighborhoods have encroached into existing oil and gas fields.
Environmental activists argue state laws have always favored the oil and gas industry by allowing people and wells close to one another. Environmentalists and government regulators also worry about gas well impacts on well water. And in Denton, parents and Guyer staffers have asked school and city officials to beef up monitoring and safety plans.
To underscore the need, Guyer staffers showed pictures of one gas well pad site on campus. The ground around the production equipment was peppered with baseballs.
How we got here
Denton ISD bought land on Teasley Lane for a new high school in 1998. In 2003, school officials negotiated a lease to drill with NationsGas Partners LLC.
School officials hadn’t built the high school yet, but they knew where the buildings and ballfields would go. They drew a map with the two gas well sites shoehorned in between the buildings and the ballfields. The map became a part of the lease agreement with NationsGas. The map also showed where the pipeline might go.
Denton ISD officials knew other Texas school districts grappled with oil and gas wells on campus. They said school safety was their top concern as they negotiated the deal with NationsGas.
“We talked a lot about safety,” said Denton ISD school board President Mia Price, who served on the board when the gas lease was negotiated more than a decade ago. “We looked at places like Ponder, Odessa and Midland. We knew we didn’t want wells near our campuses, but we liked the revenue aspect. The state was cutting revenue, and we’re always looking for revenue sources.”
The money that came from the wells didn’t live up to expectations. Denton ISD financial records show oil and gas revenues for the district declined from $105,000 in 2010 to a low point of $23,000 in 2016, following the nationwide trend of falling gas prices.
“Obviously, it hasn’t worked out like we had hoped,” said board member Jim Alexander, who has served on the school board since 1993. “But it was a good decision at the time with the information we were given.”
Oil and natural gas operations have coexisted successfully with communities across the state for more than 100 years, Longanecker said.
“It’s imperative that communities and operators work together to ensure oil and natural gas development is not hindered and impacts such as traffic and noise are mitigated when possible,” Longanecker said.
The worst school disaster in U.S. history claimed 300 lives and injured hundreds more in Rusk County in March 1937. The New London school tapped a production pipeline from a nearby gas field with permission from the operator. Gas leaked under the school undetected. The resulting explosion could be heard 4 miles away.
Last fall, Isaac Escobar called state and local officials after discovering methane bubbling from an abandoned water well on his property in southern Denton. Inspectors with the misnamed Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, visited nearby gas wells, including the gas wells on the Guyer property.
Inspectors found irregularities at two nearby gas wells, including one at Guyer High. They ruled out problems with the well at Guyer and focused on another well, behind the Kroger shopping center on Teasley Lane. That well was repaired.
However, inspectors did not determine for certain where the methane was coming from before the landowner plugged the water well.
The North Texas Groundwater Conservation District has asked state inspectors to keep investigating the leak. The district monitors water drawn from groundwater wells in Cooke, Collin and Denton counties.
According to new documents obtained by the Record-Chronicle, district officials asked Endeavor Energy, the operator of the well behind Kroger, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Railroad Commission to test two other water wells that were within a mile of the reported leak.
District general manager Drew Satterwhite said he didn’t expect TCEQ to test because the authority in this situation belongs to the Railroad Commission. Endeavor declined to test. Without pinpointing the source of the leak in the Escobar well, Satterwhite said, the district doesn’t know whether the methane could be naturally occurring.
“In my role, you just can’t say,” Satterwhite said.
In other words, if the district doesn’t know the source, the methane could bubble up again, in another water well or somewhere else.
Railroad Commission inspectors haven’t returned to the area because the agency’s standard procedure is to test a water well when the owner formally complains of contamination, according to agency spokeswoman Ramona Nye.
“We have no record of complaints filed by water well owners in the area of the Escobar plugged water well,” Nye said in an email to the Record-Chronicle.
Nye called a question about whether a pipeline leak could be the source of methane “speculative.”
“Protecting public safety and our environment is the Railroad Commission’s highest priority, and we strongly encourage anyone who suspects a pipeline leak to report it,” Nye said.
Pipelines and inspectors
The six gas wells aren’t the only production equipment at Guyer High School. The wells have gathering pipelines that connect to larger, high-pressure pipelines that run under school property.
The pipelines are clearly marked. They run alongside or adjacent to the athletic fields. Near the agriculture barn, markers are placed about every 50 yards. A marker sits on a corner of the property by the practice football field, and another is fixed to a fence separating the football and softball fields. There is no marker near the creek bed on the athletic complex side, but two markers — one just outside the pad site, and another between the pad site and tennis courts — sit on the other side of the creek.
According to pipeline permits, the northern portion of the gathering pipeline is 4.5 inches in diameter. The southern portion, which doglegs around the tennis courts, is 6.63 inches in diameter.
After Guyer students and staff members voiced concern about the wells and pipelines, school officials laid out safety plans during an April board meeting.
If a pipeline leaks, campus administrators would lock down the facilities, shut off air flow from outside and have students shelter in place. If a fire or explosion occurs, students would be taken to a secure location or put on buses.
Concerned residents also asked the city to revisit its rules and enforcement program. Denton's gas well inspection program shrunk prior to the Escobar leak. The department had four employees and a $400,000 annual budget in 2014. By 2017, three inspectors had left and not been replaced. Today, the only employee left is administrator Rodney Weatherby. But the department budget is still set at $402,389.
Sara Kuechler, assistant to the city manager, said she is preparing a report for the Denton City Council that should be finished next month. In addition to background information, the report should "touch upon how gas well inspections under the city's ordinance are currently staffed and handled," Kuechler said.
The city has about 500 gas wells in its jurisdiction, including gas wells close to schools other than Guyer.
Eight Denton schools have at least one or more wells within a 1-mile radius of campus. McNair Elementary School has the most — 21 gas wells.
When the school district submitted its plans to expand the campus, the old agreement between district officials and the operator no longer applied. The city had the authority to enforce any new planning rules, according to city Planning Director Munal Mauladad.
However, the city's new rules for oil and gas activities were significantly weakened by House Bill 40. The Texas Legislature passed the bill in 2015 to nullify Denton's ban on hydraulic fracturing and limit local governments in regulating oil and gas in their communities. New legislation filed last session would have increased protective distances near schools, but it died in committee.
Currently, Denton city regulations require 250 feet between the fence surrounding a gas well and any new building on a school campus.
Three of the six wells on the Guyer campus didn't comply with the distance requirement.
The city required EagleRidge Energy to move its fences closer to the gas wells to increase the distance from school facilities.
Officials with EagleRidge did not return a message for comment about whether the encroachment affected its operations.
The city's new rules don't apply to the school's ballfields, though the old rules ostensibly could have because they applied to "places of assembly." It's not clear why city planners allowed the other facilities, such as the tennis courts, to be erected even closer to the well sites than the school, Mauladad said.
Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said in March there have been talks about potentially capping the wells because the district needs the extra space.
"I would love for them to take them all," he said. "We're in agreements with people about that, so it's a lot of work to make that happen and get those capped."
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.
In the Know
Guyer isn't the only Denton ISD school with gas wells nearby. Answering a citizen's question about gas wells, city staff members said the following schools have gas wells within a 1-mile radius of campus.
|Campus||Number of wells|
|Borman Elementary School||15|
|Guyer High School||12|
|Houston Elementary School||4|
|McMath Middle School||8|
|McNair Elementary School||21|
|Nelson Elementary School||11|
|Newton Rayzor Elementary School||3|
|Rivera Elementary School||2|
|Ryan Elementary School||13|