EARTHWORKS

City puts together panel on drilling

Task force to provide input during overhaul of natural gas ordinance

Denton Record-Chronicle | Lowell Brown

July 2, 2011
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Denton city officials have assembled a task force to advise them on the second phase of a gas drilling ordinance overhaul.

City Council members had long said they wanted a task force of technical experts and other residents to help them rewrite the city’s rules for natural gas drilling. City staff members have been assembling the group since at least May, according to a memo obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle.

A full list of members was not made public until Friday afternoon, when the city released the names in response to requests from the newspaper. The task force has not met yet, and city officials say its charge and membership are subject to change.

The newspaper sought interviews with City Manager George Campbell and City Attorney Anita Burgess, who has been active in the ordinance review. Neither responded by phone, but the city’s public information office provided a written response.

The likely members are:

* Darren Groth, the city’s gas well administrator;

* Karen Moss, who works for the oil and gas engineering firm New Tech Global in Fort Worth;

* Eastern Research Group, the company performing Fort Worth’s air quality study;

* Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council;

* Tom LaPoint, an environmental researcher; and

* Vicki Oppenheim, an urban planner.

City staff may contact task force members individually for advice throughout the ordinance review, and members may meet as a body to gather public feedback, according to the city statement.

“While such meetings may not be subject to the Open Meetings Act, they would be noticed to the public, unless members were being advised on legal issues that are of a confidential nature,” according to the statement.

The city attorney’s office initially presented some names to council members in a confidential memo in late May, according to a June 17 memo from Campbell to council members.

“Staff is moving ahead with organization of this group and we appreciate Council’s consideration and concurrence with this process,” Campbell wrote, adding that they hoped to complete draft ordinance revisions by early to late fall.

The newspaper obtained Campbell’s memo this week through an open-records request. City officials had not responded to a separate request to release the city attorney’s memo.

Asked why task force updates were sent through memos, instead of presented in public meetings, the city replied: “The City Manager’s Office and City Attorney’s Office were simply keeping the City Council apprised of an on-going staff project, which included privileged information. The [city attorney’s] report contained attorney-client communications, and incidentally mentioned some of the potential members in that context.”

Ten days before Campbell sent his memo, council member Dalton Gregory publicly asked him to call a council meeting to discuss citizen representation on the task force. Gregory said the council needed citizen voices to balance the “technical representatives” already selected, although he did not mention names.

In the memo, Campbell proposed adding two of three candidates: LaPoint, director of the Institute of Applied Sciences at the University of North Texas, who was suggested by Gregory; John Siegmund, a former petroleum engineer suggested by the city staff; and Oppenheim, who was suggested by council member Jim Engelbrecht.

Council members agreed to all three selections during their June 21 discussion on boards and commissions, although Siegmund was not named in the list provided by the city Friday.

Gregory, who has called for stronger drilling regulations, said in an interview he was pleased with the group’s makeup. The panel includes people with diverse backgrounds, including work for the oil and gas industry.

“It’s not like it’s someone from Range [Resources],” Gregory said, referring to the company whose drilling operations at Rayzor Ranch near homes, a hospital and a city park faced public opposition. “We’ve asked for people that have done work for the industry but have also done work for cities.”

The council held closed-door meetings May 17 and June 7 to discuss “legal issues” involved with gas drilling regulations, but Gregory said he did not believe the task force was discussed in those meetings.

Denton resident Cathy McMullen was active in the fight against drilling at Rayzor Ranch and the push for stronger city regulations last year, when the council passed a first phase of ordinance changes. McMullen expressed disappointment with the task force selections, saying the citizen representatives weren’t actively involved in the Rayzor Ranch fight or the earlier ordinance review.

McMullen said she and other residents had suggested Sharon Wilson of Earthworks’ Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a drilling watchdog group, as a balance to industry apologists who might serve on the task force.

“It seems to be handpicked,” McMullen said. “They don’t want somebody that’s going to come in and stir things up.”

Research project

Residents may have another avenue to offer input.

Council member Kevin Roden said he is working with several UNT professors interested in a research project that would involve forming a separate committee of residents to serve alongside the city’s official task force. The panel, which has not been assembled, would seek public input and offer suggestions for ordinance changes, Roden said.

He said he hopes the council would somehow incorporate the committee’s work into its official deliberations.

From a research perspective, the project would explore the tension between the democratic ideal of “citizen participation” and the need for expertise in an increasingly high-tech society, said Adam Briggle, one of the professors working on the project. He planned to apply for a National Science Foundation grant to fund it.

“Citizens represent various forms of expertise that oftentimes don’t find their way onto these official [government] bodies,” said Briggle, a philosophy professor. “[To say] there are experts on one hand and Joe Blow on the other is painting with too broad of a brush. We have to have a finer analysis.”

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

Tagged with: task force, natural gas, fracking, drilling

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