EARTHWORKS

Dallas OKs gas drilling rules that are among nation’s tightest

Dallas Morning News | Randy Lee Loftis

December 11, 2013
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Dallas adopted one of the nation’s most restrictive ordinances on natural gas drilling Wednesday, requiring more than a quarter-mile between wells and protected uses such as homes.

The City Council voted 9-6 to adopt a City Plan Commission recommendation for a 1,500-foot setback around gas wells. Dallas’ current ordinance requires 300 feet.

The decision came after years of arguments over well safety, toxic air emissions, gas leasing rights and drillers’ use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Neighborhood groups joined with environmental advocates to press the city for maximum restrictions.

The gas industry, some residents and some council members said the industry’s critics were seeking a virtual ban on drilling.

Those arguments surfaced again in statements from the public and council members. In the end, however, council member Scott Griggs’ motion in favor of 1,500 feet never seemed in trouble, and Griggs simply offered the measure without comment.

1,000 feet rejected

The council first rejected member Sheffie Kadane’s effort to shorten the new minimum distance to 1,000 feet, with a proviso for 500 feet if a council majority agreed. The same members who voted against Kadane’s motion then voted for Griggs’.

Like the old ordinance, the new one requires a council vote on a specific-use permit for each proposed drilling site. The process lets council members review factors such as neighborhood impact and add more protections if desired.

Griggs added an amendment allowing a two-thirds council vote to reduce the setback by an unspecified amount for any particular well.

Council member Dwaine Caraway, who voted with Griggs, said the council’s ability to treat every drilling application individually would ensure safety for people and fairness for the gas industry.

Council member Carolyn Davis agreed with Caraway. Most of the handful of public speakers who addressed the council also backed the new ordinance.

Sharon Wilson, an Allen resident who works with Earthworks, an anti-fracking group, said she wanted to thank the council in advance for passing a strong ordinance.

Park concerns

And Dallas resident Eddie Morgan urged the council to keep wells out of the city’s undeveloped parkland, a key concern during earlier discussions of drilling rules.

“We lived our childhood dreams and fantasies running through the woods,” Morgan said.

But Bill Hastings of Dallas said a highly restrictive ordinance would shut off economic opportunities for the city and for landowners seeking to profit off their mineral rights.

“Three hundred feet [between wells and homes] is too close and 1,500 feet is too far,” he said.

Petroleum engineer Bill Crowder of Dallas predicted an economic and legal reckoning from an ordinance that he said might effectively ban drilling.

‘Look me in the eye’

“I want you to look me in the eye next February or March,” he said, “when I ask you, ‘What the heck were you thinking?’”

The vote caps a fight with its origins in leases of city-owned land to gas drillers in 2007. The Barnett Shale gas field is mostly west of Dallas, with its less productive eastern edge below the city.

At the time, the Barnett Shale was making international news and drilling in Dallas seemed inevitable. Six years later, the city still has no wells because of changing market conditions and disputes among drillers, the city and drilling opponents.

Drilling in the Barnett Shale has cooled off, and companies have shipped most well rigs elsewhere. But that could change if gas prices rise — an economic possibility that underscored the questions before the council.

Opponents of requiring a wider buffer between wells and homes had the tougher job Wednesday.

Council member Lee Kleinman called the 1,500-foot setback an “unreasonable and extremist” attempt to ban gas wells in Dallas.

“We might as well save a lot of paper” and hang up a no-drilling sign, Kleinman said. Council member Vonciel Jones Hill agreed.

“I believe that the setback requirement is arbitrary and capricious and unreasonable,” Hill said. “I believe that [banning drilling] is what this motion does.”

AT A GLANCE: How they voted

How the City Council voted on the 1,500-foot minimum:

For: Mayor Mike Rawlings, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo, Scott Griggs, Adam Medrano, Dwaine Caraway, Carolyn Davis, Sandy Greyson, Jennifer Staubach Gates and Philip Kingston.

Against: Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins, Vonciel Jones Hill, Rick Callahan, Sheffie Kadane, Jerry Allen and Lee Kleinman.

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