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Mayoral candidates debate drilling issues

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

Candidates for Denton mayor agree that more regulation is needed to protect the public from potential health and environmental effects of urban gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, but they disagree on how far the city can go in pursuing that goal.

Mayor Mark Burroughs and his challengers in the May 12 election, Donna Woodfork and Neil Durrance, tackled questions on natural gas drilling for two hours Thursday night in a forum sponsored by the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group.

Early voting starts Monday.

More than 100 people, many of college age, filled a lecture hall at the University of North Texas to hear the candidates debate one of the defining issues of the campaign. The city is in the middle of a major overhaul of its drilling and production rules, and voters throughout the campaign have demanded to know how candidates would handle the review.

The forum sponsor, an independent advisory group known as DAG, set the tone for the review last year by holding public meetings and issuing a report recommending a more robust permitting process and oversight for gas facilities. DAG chairman Adam Briggle, a UNT professor, moderated the forum using questions from the audience.

All three candidates acknowledge landowners’ right to profit from underground minerals and Texas’ history as an oil and gas state. Each also expresses concern about the industry’s health and environmental effects, including the large volumes of water used in fracking and emissions that contribute to Denton County’s failing air quality rating.

Their biggest disagreements Thursday came over how much power the city has to regulate the industry, the City Council’s handling of the ordinance review, and whether the city was right to allow nonresidents as voting members on its official drilling task force.

Durrance, 55, a lawyer and former council member, believes home-rule cities such as Denton have broad power to protect the public and can use it to strongly regulate urban drilling.

Burroughs, 54, a lawyer seeking a third term, and Woodfork, 42, a marketing director, see cities’ power as more limited but said Denton should still pursue the strongest rules possible.

The Texas Railroad Commission is primarily responsible for regulating oil and gas, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality oversees air and water quality issues.

Burroughs said the Legislature has pre-empted or limited cities’ ability to regulate certain aspects of oil and gas development, and he urged the audience to press legislators to increase that power. Drilling is unique among heavy industrial uses in that cities can’t limit it to industrial zoning districts, Burroughs said.

“The negatives [of gas drilling] are far in excess of what the city stands to gain from it,” Burroughs said. “But unfortunately that’s not the issue that cities are able to evaluate.”

Burroughs said he testified in Austin about the need for more municipal power to stop urban drilling. At the same time, he also believes in protecting the rights of mineral owners, Burroughs said.

Woodfork struck a similar tone.

“Here in Texas we’re regulated differently,” Woodfork said after being asked why Denton couldn’t just ban drilling like Pittsburgh did in 2010. “Therefore, as future mayor of the city of Denton, I would like to put a pause on it for a moment until our gas drilling staff can ensure they can give me a presentation with the most environmentally safe techniques that can be used.”

Woodfork claimed Texas wasn’t regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. However, both federal agencies operate in Texas and the EPA has overseen parts of the state’s air permitting program since 2010.

This month, the EPA issued the first federal air standards for hydraulically fractured gas wells in an attempt to reduce emissions, although the rules won’t fully take effect until 2015.

Both Durrance and Burroughs said they supported extending the city’s temporary moratorium on new drilling permits. Burroughs said it should last until the council approves a new ordinance. Durrance wants a moratorium until the city has better scientific research on the industry’s impacts.

The city’s ordinance review started in response to public anger over gas drilling at the Rayzor Ranch development near a hospital, park and neighborhood in 2009. Council members, worried the city’s drilling rules were outdated but unwilling to pass a moratorium, passed new regulations in July 2010 as an “interim ordinance” to buy time for a full review.

Council members seemed reluctant to discuss a moratorium until Jan. 10, when they delayed two drilling-related permit requests because of the ongoing ordinance review. Four council members  — Dalton Gregory, Jim Engelbrecht, Chris Watts and Kevin Roden — called for a moratorium at the end of that meeting, paving the way for its passage Feb. 7.

Burroughs defended the council’s timing, saying a moratorium with no clear end date “is a taking of someone’s rights.” Durrance and Woodfork said the council’s slow response showed it valued the industry over the public.

Burroughs also defended the city’s official task force, which included three residents and two industry representatives. The panel, assembled by the city manager with council members’ input, forwarded 44 recommendations to the city but voted 3-2 to defeat some environmental rules.

A minority report from two members of the task force, issued this week, said the panel was too small, did not represent residents, did not fully vet residents’ concerns on gas production and failed to hear expert presentations.

In past forums, Burroughs defended the inclusion of industry representatives, saying he considered the panel a “technical committee,” not a citizen committee. On Thursday, Burroughs said he originally proposed two separate panels — one with residents, the other with technical experts — but city administrators decided to merge the groups.

After the forum, Burroughs said he pitched the idea in a private meeting with city administrators and never discussed it publicly.

Durrance and Woodfork said they welcomed feedback from technical experts but believed task force membership should have been limited to Denton residents.

Burroughs also said he “demanded” a minority report from the task force. In an interview, Vicki Oppenheim, who co-authored the minority report with Tom La Point, said the report already was in the works when Burroughs said he’d like to see it.

“It is true what he [Burroughs] said,” Oppenheim said. “On the other hand, as soon as the voting ended, we [she and La Point] knew we were going to do something.”

Candidates also were asked if they believed in climate change.

Burroughs said rising ocean temperatures and volatile weather patterns showed climate change was real, and he believes human behavior is one of the causes. Durrance said global warming has been studied since the 1980s and that to question it was denying the obvious.

Woodfork did not directly answer the question but said she would “conserve the climate as much as possible.”

The single-issue debate let candidates elaborate on their views more than in past forums.

Durrance offered a series of regulations he would support, including stricter noise limits, electric — instead of diesel — compressor motors, and tracing chemicals in fracking fluids to better track sources of water pollution.

Burroughs, who serves as chairman of the North Texas Clean Air Steering Committee, said the new EPA regulations partially mirror the “green” drilling standards his committee endorsed.

He wants to explore implementing those standards in Denton as soon as possible, instead of waiting until 2015, Burroughs said.

Woodfork repeatedly said she supported “environmentally friendly” regulations but offered few detailed proposals.