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Drilling panel draws flak

Profile image for By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer
By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer

Denton residents who were involved in the push for stronger gas drilling regulations last year say they fear the city's proposed drilling task force is skewed in favor of the industry. TASK FORCE

Denton city leaders on Friday released their selections for a task force on gas drilling regulations.The task force has not met yet, and city officials say its membership is subject to change. The likely members are:• Eastern Research Group, part of the AEA Group, an environmental and energy consulting firm• Darren Groth, the city's gas well administrator• Ed Ireland, executive director, Barnett Shale Energy Education Council• Tom La Point, biological sciences professor, University of North Texas • Karen Moss, regulatory affairs manager for New Tech Global, an oil and gas consulting and engineering firm• Vicki Oppenheim, principal, Denton-based Green Leaf Environmental Planning

The proposed six-member task force - five people and a research firm - includes two people whose jobs are industry-funded. Other members include the city's gas well administrator, an environmental researcher and an urban planner.

Some advocates for stronger regulations said they'd hoped to see more independent experts and neighborhood-friendly voices on the panel, which will advise city leaders on the second phase of an ordinance overhaul.

"The primary makeup is oil and gas industry-related, whether they are subsidized by the oil and gas industry or whether they do testing for the oil and gas industry," said Hatice Salih, who called for a drilling moratorium last year during an unsuccessful run for the City Council. "Obviously this group was put together to come up with ideas and ordinances and provisions that are going to be friendly to those industries."

Key city officials were out of the office this week and unavailable to answer questions about the proposed task force, including whether the city would pay any members for their work, city spokesman John Cabrales said.

At least one member, Karen Moss of the oil and gas consulting and engineering firm New Tech Global, is under contract as a city consultant. The Denton Record-Chronicle requested all contracts between the city and task force members Tuesday, but the city had not responded by Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement last week, the city's public information office said task force members were chosen based on their technical expertise and ability to represent neighborhood interests while acting as impartial advisers to city staff.

The selections were still subject to change, according to the statement.

The city released the names of likely task force members Friday in response to requests from the newspaper.

They include Moss, regulatory affairs manager for New Tech Global, and Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

Another likely member is Eastern Research Group, a company whose ongoing air quality study for the city of Fort Worth made headlines for delays and rising costs.

Environmental researcher Tom La Point and urban planner Vicki Oppenheim were named as the panel's citizen representatives.


Public reaction

Joyce Poole, who lives near gas wells on North Bonnie Brae Street, said the panel tilts too heavily toward the industry.

"It goes right back to [Mayor] Mark Burroughs' comment that we select them to do our bidding," Poole said, referring to Burroughs' remark during a June 21 council meeting on the role of council appointees. "These people were selected for the advice that the council would get in the favor of more gas wells, which means tax money."

Denton resident Sharon Wilson, a regional organizer for environmental group Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project, questioned whether the panel's technical representatives would deliver the expert advice city leaders say they want.

"Karen Moss … has a vested interest in keeping the industry happy because that's who she works for," Wilson said. "Ed Ireland is a public relations man. He is not a technical person, and his job depends on making the industry look good."

Moss said she is under contract as a consultant for Denton and would have to check with the city attorney's office before being interviewed.

Ireland, who holds a doctorate in economics, said he would bring more than 20 years of experience in the natural gas industry to the panel.

Ireland said the city's gas well administrator, Darren Groth, asked him to serve and that the city isn't paying him for his work.


Citizen representatives

Salih also questioned La Point's appointment, saying the city looked to La Point in 2005 after an environmental group said playground equipment at South Lakes Park was exposing children to dangerous arsenic levels.

La Point, a biological sciences professor at the University of North Texas, wrote a report saying the risk was minimal.

"It's the same thing all over again," Salih said. "I just don't think they assembled the committee in any other way except to make sure they get the results they want."

La Point defended his 2005 report, saying the calculated probability of health damage to an infant based on the properties of arsenic in the playground wood was "very, very low." His calculations were published in the report for all to see, he said.

Oppenheim, the other citizen representative, said she would bring a perspective as a neighborhood advocate and urban planner.

"I have worked on gas drilling-related projects and did way back when some of the first plats were being issued in Denton," she said. "Since then I've become involved in community groups in the area, so I have a perspective from both viewpoints. But I'm certainly very much wanting to support the community's interests."

Oppenheim said she started her own business, Green Leaf Environmental Planning, last year to focus exclusively on environmental projects and no longer performs work for the oil and gas industry.


Separate panel sought

Elma Walker, who has fought the placement of gas wells near homes at the Robson Ranch retirement community, said she's glad the city is moving forward with the next phase of the ordinance review.

Walker said she hopes council member Kevin Roden follows through on a plan to form a separate committee of residents to seek more public input. Roden announced last week he was working with UNT professors interested in a research project that would involve forming a committee to serve alongside the city's task force.

"Obviously we would like to see a certain amount of citizen involvement on that, and I think Kevin may have the answer," Walker said.

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