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Drilling raises some unease

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

Clean air, clean water, stable property values.

For many Denton residents, these goals loom large as the city considers more regulations on natural gas drilling and production.

Some residents have more specific goals, like tougher insurance requirements and rules to reduce air pollution. They shared these and other ideas Thursday night at the first meeting of a task force that will help the City Council rewrite Denton's gas drilling ordinance.

Many, mindful of the drought, voiced concerns about water depletion and potential contamination from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a practice that involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up rock and free gas. The practice is the focus of a study by the Environmental Protection Agency, whose initial findings are expected late next year.

"I like to breathe fresh air and I like to drink clean water," resident Sue Smith told the three-member citizen task force at the Denton Civic Center. "With fracking, I don't think that's possible."

Breakthroughs in fracking and horizontal drilling technology are credited with sparking a drilling boom that added jobs and dollars to the North Texas economy over the past decade. The Barnett Shale region now has 15,269 gas wells in 23 counties, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency charged with regulating the industry.

The issue is forcing city leaders to juggle the industry's economic impact, state and federal laws, and a public drive for more regulation.

Denton is entering the second phase of an ordinance review after passing a collection of changes last summer that included higher permit and inspection fees and larger buffers between gas wells and homes. City officials say the second phase will focus heavily on health and environmental issues.

That could mean new regulations on fracking, including banning the use of city water, forcing operators to recycle water and restricting the use of chemicals, said Mark Cunningham, the city's planning director.

Some residents asked the city to allow drilling only in areas zoned for industrial use. Some also wanted all drilling sites to obtain a specific-use permit, which requires public hearings and council approval.

Under the current ordinance, drilling is allowed in multiple zoning categories and a specific-use permit isn't always required.

"Gas production is a use of land that is wholly inappropriate to be near residential or commercial uses," resident Devin Taylor said. "It is an industrial use."

A property developed with gas wells and pipelines can't be used for anything else, said Phyllis Wolper, a Denton real estate agent and chairwoman of the Denton County Democratic Party.

"The city can collect a lot of [tax] money off of it while it's happening, but afterwards where is it going to get the tax dollars?" Wolper said.

Riki Young, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, read from a 2010 Denton Fire Department study that found a "possibility" that gas drilling operations could trigger an earthquake in an inactive geological fault line near Ray Roberts Lake. That could result in the "catastrophic failure" of the lake's dam, which would lead to flooding and quickly overwhelm the fire department's resources, according to the report.

"I find that particularly disturbing," Young said.

A 2010 study by researchers at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas found that underground injection of wastewater from gas drilling operations was a "plausible" cause of small earthquakes near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The Barnett Shale region has 180 commercial disposal wells, including three in Denton County, according to the Railroad Commission. Those numbers don't include private injection wells.

Cathy McMullen called for a moratorium on new drilling permits until the city finished the ordinance review. McMullen was active in the fight against drilling at the Rayzor Ranch development near homes, a hospital and a city park.

Council members approved drilling at Rayzor Ranch in 2009, saying they feared costly lawsuits because state law broadly protects the rights of mineral owners to access oil and gas. Public anger over the issue prompted the current ordinance review.

Moderation urged

A few speakers warned the city not to go overboard.

Gilbert Horton of Devon Energy Corp., a leading Barnett Shale producer, said he hoped Denton would base regulations on fact, not emotion, and involve industry experts along the way. City regulations already include numerous safeguards to protect the public, Horton said.

Martin Garza, a Dallas lawyer who represents industry clients, said the public comments Thursday reflected a "narrow focus" and called for a more balanced approach.

City officials said the task force would continue seeking input from people with a variety of views and knowledge, including legal and industry experts. Vicki Oppenheim, an urban planner leading the task force, said she expected to call another public meeting in about a month.

Stakeholder group meets

Many of the same people attended a panel discussion on gas drilling Monday night at the University of North Texas. The event was the first official meeting of the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, part of a research project led by philosophy professor Adam Briggle.

The advisory group isn't officially part of the city's ordinance review, although council member Kevin Roden is an organizer.

The speaker panel included Deborah Rogers, a member of the advisory committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who was quoted in a New York Times article in June that challenged the industry's profit and production claims.

The newspaper used industry e-mails and internal documents to question whether companies were overstating their wells' productivity and the size of their reserves.

Industry officials attacked the article's conclusions and sourcing. New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane also wrote a critique, saying the article failed to include dissenting views.

During her presentation Monday, Rogers offered research and analysis to support the article's claims.

"There's no doubt the gas exists in shale; that's a given," she said. "Too much emphasis, however, has been focused purely on the amount of gas trapped in shale when much of this gas may never be commercially extractable unless natural gas prices rise dramatically. Of course, if that happens, then natural gas is no longer a cheap source of energy."

The panel also included former Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman, Fort Worth environmental lawyer Jim Bradbury and Tammi Vajda, a former member of Flower Mound's drilling advisory board.

Slides from the presentations are available on the advisory group's website,

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