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David Minton

PRESSURE BUILDING

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

Denton’s long-brewing gas well debate coming to a head

One City Council member has dubbed it a universal failure.

Perhaps the biggest showdown on Denton’s November ballot — a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing in the city limits — came after a culmination of failures by past city leaders, state legislators and regulators, housing developers, the oil and gas industry, and home buyers themselves. Council member Dalton Gregory said he came to that conclusion after a recent visit to a new neighborhood being built next to existing gas well pad sites.

He paced off the distance between the masonry wall surrounding a gas well and the back fence to the brand-new home built beside it in southwestern Denton.

“Twelve feet,” he said. “And the house was sold.”

City leaders, residents and others who have a stake in the outcome of the November election have varying assessments of how Denton came to this tipping point. But most agree the conflict now has the attention of state officials and others in Austin.

For the first 10 years of the Barnett Shale drilling boom, the city seemed to always be in the position of catching up with its rules and regulations, according to Mayor Chris Watts.

He will join a panel discussion at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin today to talk about “The Fracas Over Fracking.”

Watts called urban drilling a new phenomenon where no one seemed to fully anticipate the future impacts. The Barnett Shale was first developed more than a decade ago. Some of the earliest wells in the Denton area were vertical wells and people didn’t necessarily expect operators to come back. The technology wasn’t as sophisticated then as it is now. While new technology solved some problems, it created other concerns, Watts said.

As residents brought their concerns over public health and welfare to city leaders, the City Council tried to keep up, particularly by increasing setbacks from well sites and protected uses. The city’s ever-increasing setbacks — from a 100-foot fire clearance in the beginning to a 1,200-foot distance from homes, schools and other protected uses — reflected the city’s increasing understanding of the concerns, Watts said.

For Denton, though, the gas field lies in south of Interstate 35E, and that is also one of the city’s largest growth areas. In other words, Watts said, the rights of mineral owners and surface owners in Denton were set on a collision course from the beginning.

“Once a rig came in behind someone’s back fence, well, that exploded into the rest of the situation,” Watts said.

Ultimately, Watts said, the city cannot solve the problem of vested rights — a claim that some operators have made for decades-old leases — without help from the Texas Legislature.

Bobby Jones, a landowner and part of Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, which opposes the proposed ban, said his family has some of those old wells. They have watched the city grow toward their property on South Bonnie Brae Street for decades.

“The City Council keeps wanting to change the rules, but I don’t think they ever told the citizens that we are grandfathered,” Jones said.

State Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, said that, almost by definition, oil and gas interests and the interests of a growing population are a competing interest.

“I’ve met with people and heard their stories, those who have had drilling in their backyards,” Crownover said. “I feel for those people.”

But, as a matter of public policy, she said Texas and the country would be in a much weaker position without domestic oil and gas development. She will also join a festival panel discussion titled “Texas vs. the EPA” today.

“We were spending $700 billion a year buying oil and gas from people who didn’t respect our culture,” Crownover said.

That said, the way urban drilling has progressed may not be the best situation, she said.

She said she and state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, are “committed to looking at what we need to do at the state level.”

Ed Ireland of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council said Denton’s permitting process had a lot to do with the collision course between mineral owners and surface owners. Both leaseholders and developers got permits from the city for the work they did.

“The well that’s by Apogee Stadium — Apogee wasn’t there when the well was drilled,” Ireland said.

Ireland helped represent the industry on a city-run, but controversial, task force that proposed revisions to the city’s ordinance. He, too, will speak on the festival’s fracking panel with the mayor.

The earliest drilling permits weren’t issued by the city’s planning department. They were issued by the fire department.

“That’s the background of the conflict,” Ireland said, adding that he didn’t know of another city that had done that.

For John Ryan, who joined the City Council in May, that piece of the conflict is pivotal. One company, EagleRidge Operating, holds many of those old permits and it pushed the envelope to exercise its rights with those permits.

“That caused the greater numbers of citizens who got involved,” Ryan said, adding that he didn’t believe there would even be a ban on the ballot without that conflict pushing residents to the tipping point.

For Jim Engelbrecht, one of two council members who have the most gas wells in their districts, it wasn’t so much one company pushing the envelope for property rights. Recent drilling and fracking appears to be a stock play, not just here but at all levels, he said.

“They aren’t in it to really develop the oil and gas,” Engelbrecht said. “They are driving up what appears to be the book value, or keeping the stock value up.”

Once the energy company can book enough reserves, then they put the project up for sale, he said.

Residents see no good method to hold the industry accountable once they start drilling in people’s backyards, he said.

“The only thing we can do is have a ban,” Engelbrecht said.

Council member Joey Hawkins, the other council member with the most gas wells in his district, said the conflict has been on the council’s radar every day. He said he thinks it’s going to take a long time to fix the problems because the situation has gotten so complicated.

“I don’t think anyone doesn’t feel bad for the neighbors, like the Vintage [neighborhood],” Hawkins said. “It really does break my heart when kids don’t want to play in their backyards.”

It seems that everything the city has tried to do to fix its drilling rules, someone has claimed vested rights, Hawkins said.

The decision to go the long way — giving the frack ban over to the voters, rather than to taking the shortcut and having the council simply adopt the ban — was a hard decision to make, he said.

“That night I went to bed and my guts just hurt for my community,” Hawkins said.

For Greg Johnson, the council’s other newcomer, the lack of information and the city’s inability to enforce its rules, even the setbacks, seemed pivotal to the conflict.

At a recent Republican Party event, he sought out the party’s candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, Ryan Sitton, to talk to him about the no-win situation he felt the city was in.

“He told me, ‘I think the Texas Railroad Commission let you down,’” Johnson said.

“No one wants a rig behind their house,” Johnson added. “And if they tell you otherwise, they’re not being truthful.”

Council member Kevin Roden said he still believes that the revisions the council made to the ordinance address problems with future wells, but the conflict with EagleRidge put an exclamation point on the problems at old wells.

“That’s when we all woke up and realized that’s our biggest problem,” Roden said, particularly because developers were building homes to within a few hundred feet of them.

He said he thinks state policymakers can no longer ignore the problem, since it really can’t be framed as gas well development versus crazy environmentalists.

“Growth is no longer orderly, it’s chaos,” Roden said, adding that could finally force developers to the table, since their investments are increasingly at risk. “Now we can have a real conversation.”

Resident Cathy McMullen sounded the alarm in 2009, with the first wells that came close to a Denton neighborhood, park and hospital. She and others with the Denton Drilling Advisory Group, which brought the petition to ban fracking, said there’s no regulation that could get the city out of the mess.

“We checked off all the boxes,” McMullen said. “The last thing we could do is a ban on fracking.”

Whether the proposed ban can survive a legal challenge remains to be seen. Former Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who now represents the Texas Oil and Gas Association, told the City Council the night that it called the proposition election that he didn’t believe the ban was constitutional. Likely, one or more members of the association would sue if the proposition passes, he said.