EARTHWORKS

Texas: When fracking comes to town

For northern Texans who live near gas wells, fracking'€™s promise of cleaner energy is overshadowed by drilling, pollution and fears for their health. Some residents have started to fight back.

AlJazeera America | Alex Halperin

April 27, 2014
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DENTON, Texas — Alyse and Lance Ogletree moved to the Meadows at Hickory Creek, a subdivision of modest houses in this fast-growing city 40 miles north of Dallas, in the fall of 2011. They found the home prices attractive and thought the well-regarded school district would be a good fit for their son, Kyle, who had suffered brain damage after contracting encephalitis when he was 8 months old.

Before closing the deal, Alyse, an electrical engineer in her 20s, asked the salesperson about storage tanks she’d noticed in the field several hundred feet behind the house. The salesperson said they were water tanks, Alyse recalls. She took this to mean the tanks had something to do with the drinking-water supply. 

What the Ogletrees didn’t realize was that they were purchasing a home in a neighborhood near several of Denton’s more than 270 gas wells. They also didn’t know that in Texas and many other states, buying a home doesn’t necessarily entitle the owner to the resources beneath the property. That means energy companies can in some cases drill the area for gas without the homeowners' consent.

[Alyse and Lance Ogletree and their children, Kage and Kyle, in the Meadows neighborhood in Denton. Their living room is 100 feet from a fracked well.]
Alyse and Lance Ogletree and their two children in the Meadows neighborhood in Denton. Their living room is several hundred feet from a fracked well.
Les Stone for Al Jazeera America

One day near the end of last summer, Alyse came home and saw that a temporary wall perhaps two stories high had been erected behind her house, blocking much of the view. While she couldn’t see what was happening in the field, she could hear it. “All of a sudden there’s noise, there’s commotion, and it’s loud and vibrating, and it’s horrible.”

Around the same time, Mark King, a high-school math teacher who lives with his wife a few doors down, remembers seeing trucks large enough to haul boulders. When he bought his home in 2010, King thought the area was a “dead pad.” (Gas-well sites are called pads.) But with the surge of activity, he says, he knew “hell was coming.”

The process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a method of extracting natural gas and oil from underground shale formations, is underway in several states, including Wyoming, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and California. But in few areas is it taking place as close to urban and suburban areas as in the Barnett Shale, a 5,000-square-mile expanse of gas-rich rock that lies below much of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

The global gas boom, which is upending the way the world thinks about its energy supply, began in this part of northern Texas. Here, in a state where many people earn a living in the energy industry, those who live closest to one of the Barnett’s 18,000-plus active gas wells say the promise of natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil is overshadowed by the day-to-day reality of living with noisy drilling, foul air and fears for their health.

Geologists have long known about vast reserves of fuel embedded within underground shale-rock formations around the world, but it was thought to be too expensive to extract. In 1981, an oilman named George Mitchell began to experiment with injecting water and other substances into the Barnett Shale to break the rock and release the fuel. In 2002, Devon Energy acquired Mitchell Energy for $3.5 billion and added its own expertise in drilling horizontal wells, which enabled the company to increase the “pay zone” of each frack. The modern era of fracking had begun.

The process of extraction turns the land into an industrial landscape: There’s the noisy drilling and 18-wheeler trucks that transport millions of gallons of chemical-infused water that’s later shot into wells. After the frack they carry “flowback” from the wells that can contain radioactive matter. That waste fluid is stored indefinitely in injection wells, which some believe increase the risk of earthquakes. The industry’s position is that after the nuisance of drilling and fracking, gas wells quietly pump money and fuel into the economy.

Fracking’s supporters argue that natural gas burns cleanly and will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. The gas industry says that fracking supports well-paying jobs. This is a controversial assertion in some states, but less so in Texas, where the importance of oil and gas to the economy is an article of faith. The most contentious questions around fracking involve whether air and water pollution resulting from the process endangers public health. Activists say too little is known about the risks, and are pressing for additional research. The gas, after all, isn’t going anywhere.

The many studies done so far are not conclusive. David Brown, a toxicologist who consults for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit, says the gas industry hasn’t provided health data on its own workers who labor on gas pads and bear the greatest risk of exposure to toxins. That’s where a proper health study would begin, he says.

In towns like Reno and Azle, conservative rural communities west of Fort Worth, there are signs of disillusionment with the industry. The area, not known for seismic activity, is near several injection wells and has endured dozens of earthquakes in the last year, with magnitudes in the 2 to 3 range. In January, locals traveled to Austin to testify before the Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the oil-and-gas industry.

Barbara Brown, a thin woman in her 40s who lives in Reno, has sinkholes in her yard, where she allows her horse to wander free. The holes are wide enough to step in and several feet deep. She blames them on injection wells. 

The problems began in 2007, she says, after Devon Energy drilled a well across the street, a few hundred feet from her house. Brown, who at the time bred Great Danes, says the dogs ran off one day after the drilling started. “We went over and got them, and they had this black soot halfway up their legs,” Brown remembers. “[T]hey did what all dogs do; they licked it.” Six of her dogs died within months. Five of the deaths, she says, were related to the wells. “We had a neurological disorder death. We had a death from kidney failure.” (Devon declined to comment for this story.)

By the end of the year, Brown was beginning to feel sick. She suffered migraines and the loss of sensation in her limbs. She says she has since been diagnosed with demyelinating disease, a category of neurological ailments that can be caused by exposure to chemicals. Brown, who smoked in front of a visiting reporter, says she has lost two inches of height and a frightening amount of weight. Her daughter often gets nosebleeds when she stays at the house.

Brown feels trapped. “It’s not like we can move. My house is a goner,” she says. “The foundation is completely toast,” a condition she attributes to the drilling and earthquakes.

Sharon Wilson, a salty former energy-industry employee who has become the best-known anti-fracking activist in northern Texas, says homeowners in this situation have no easy answers. “All you can do is gather enough evidence for a lawsuit and then leave.”

Denton, about 40 miles northeast of Azle, is in the heart of the Barnett Shale gas patch. In rural areas the telltale sign of a gas well is a fenced-in field and placards saying, “No Trespassing” and “No Smoking.” But in cities, the placement gets more creative. In Denton, there are wells near the University of North Texas’s football stadium and on the grounds of a high school.

But the prospect of a fracked future for their city has prompted a group of activists to fight back.

“I didn’t set out to be a fracktivist,” says Maile Bush, a fast-talking stay-at-home mother who lives near the Ogletrees in the Meadows at Hickory Creek. “We’re moms and retirees and doctors and lawyers and nurses. We’re not some Berkeley enclave.”

Bush is active in a group called Frack Free Denton, which in February began circulating a petition to outlaw hydraulic fracturing in the city. The petition has received the necessary signatures to force a city-council vote on the issue. If the council votes against a ban, it would then go to a public vote.

Other Texas cities have cracked down on fracking: In December, Dallas banned it within 1,500 feet of homes and other sensitive areas, a restriction the industry considers a “de facto ban.” But that was largely a symbolic gesture since the Barnett Shale merely edges the west side of Dallas County.

Denton’s city government has wrestled with the fracking issue for years. At each step, fracking opponents say, the industry seemed to come away with the upper hand.

In 2011, the city announced the members of a new task force to assess fracking. Much to the irritation of some residents, three of the five voting members had ties to the industry, including Ed Ireland, the executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group.

In January of 2013, the city council approved new rules that, at first glance, seemed like a victory for fracking opponents. For instance, new wells could not be drilled within 1,200 feet of houses. But there were two important loopholes: The rule didn't apply to existing wells, many of which were vertical and could be redrilled horizontally and fracked much closer than 1,200 feet to homes. Secondly, housing developers, like D.R. Horton, which built the Meadows, could proceed to build homes they had already planned as close as 250 feet to existing wells. Because Denton has so many existing wells, those loopholes essentially rendered the 1,200-foot rule irrelevant, fracking opponents say. (D.R. Horton, the nation’s largest home builder, did not respond to numerous requests for comment. The Horton salesperson who sold the Ogletrees their house similarly declined to comment.)

At the city council meeting at which the new rules were announced, several anti-fracking activists were escorted out by police after they exceeded their allotted speaking time. The incident earned them the ire of the industry: Later, Mark Grawe, chief operating officer of Dallas-based EagleRidge Energy, arrived at a meeting in another city with police protection and was recorded cautioning residents that there were people in Denton “preaching civil disobedience” and that “Homeland Security” had put the Denton activists on a “watch list.” (Grawe declined to comment. Other members of the company’s management did not return a request for comment.)

Last summer, enabled by Denton’s new rules, EagleRidge applied to the state to drill on two existing pads, the closest of which is about 250 feet behind the Ogletrees’ home. Drilling began in September on one and in October on the other. It went on 24 hours a day through much of the fall. Mark King, the teacher, is legally deaf but he could hear the drilling without his hearing aid, said his wife, Daisy, and it made their windows vibrate. 

In October, the city filed a lawsuit seeking, among other actions, a temporary restraining order against EagleRidge. A judge rejected the order and the city then dropped the entire suit, mystifying activists. City spokesperson Lindsey Baker wrote in an email that the city wanted “to consider other alternatives.” (Baker didn’t comment on why the city waited until drilling began to sue.)

In November, the city and EagleRidge entered a “standstill agreement,” under whose terms the company can work on 12 wells in the city — including those by the Meadows.

A lull set in and then came the holidays. “It was a really scary time,” says Bush. “You’re not really sure what to expect, but people have told you it’s gonna be dirty. It’s gonna be loud. It’s gonna be smelly. It’s gonna be dangerous.”

[The Ogletrees' son, Kyle, suffered brain damage from a virus as a baby. They worry about his exposure to emissions from the well.]
The Ogletrees' son, Kyle, suffered brain damage from a virus as a baby. They worry about his exposure to emissions from the well.
Les Stone for Al Jazeera America

In a letter dated Dec. 30, EagleRidge’s Grawe told residents that fracking would begin Jan. 7 and continue 12 hours a day, six days a week, for almost six weeks.

Alyse Ogletree seized on one phrase in the letter: “should any emergency occur, we will immediately notify you.”

“We have a handicapped child,” says Ogletree. “If you give me a five-minute notification, that’s barely enough time to pack a diaper bag and get his meds ready.” She didn’t even know how EagleRidge would reach her and her neighbors. The city directed that question to Grawe, who declined an interview request.

An accident in April 2013, when an EagleRidge gas pipe burst near Denton’s airport and caused a noisy spume of frack water and gas to shoot into the air, only added to Alyse's lack of confidence. The accident happened at 1:30 a.m.; according to the Denton city website, the city government wasn’t told about the spill until nine hours later. It took another five before the well was capped.

Flaring gas, a common process to test a well’s quality and quantity, creates towers of flame. Before flaring the wells near the Meadows, the area “smelled like someone was burning a skunk,” says Bush. The drilling and fracking, she adds, exacerbated her son’s asthma, and she no longer lets her kids play outside in the neighborhood. The Ogletrees say their kids were more congested this winter than in the past. (The industry says flaring is safe).

In March, the Ogletrees, the Bushes, the Kings and about two dozen other households in the area sued EagleRidge. The lawsuit says the “noise and noxious odors” associated with gas production prevent them from enjoying their homes. They are seeking between $200,000 and $1 million per household, according to the complaint. “The lawsuit was a result of the city failing to do anything to protect our property and our families from fracking,” Bush wrote in an email.

Despite the drilling and fracking that had infuriated many in the Meadows, as of February, a D.R. Horton billboard still stood in the development, advertising homes for sale “From the $170’s.” 

Mark Burroughs, Denton’s mayor, says there’s little the city can do. “Frustration and helplessness and victimization permeates the council,” he says.

In Texas, owners of underground mineral rights have priority, Burroughs notes, and can use the land at the surface in any way they want to get the treasure underneath. In some cases, mineral rights were sold off generations ago. (According to state records on the Railroad Commission’s site, four entities own the mineral rights associated with the Meadows wells.) 

If the ban on fracking does pass, it will “no doubt” invite lawsuits, says Burroughs. Mineral rights owners, gas companies and perhaps even the state of Texas might sue, he says.

Meanwhile, Denton’s residents are benefiting little financially from the fracking taking place in their backyards, according to an analysisof public records by Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas professor and a vocal member of Frack Free Denton. Drilling creates almost no jobs in the city, he says, estimating that less than 6 percent of the mineral wealth stays within city limits.

Cathy McMullen, an anti-fracking activist in Denton, says she thinks EagleRidge’s decision to drill so close to the Meadows gave its opposition an opening. “Unless it’s happening in people’s backyards, they have a tendency to not know what’s going on.”

She’s familiar with the disruption gas companies can cause. Several years before, McMullen and her husband moved to a rural area about 20 miles west of Denton where they had hoped to raise miniature donkeys. She says she tried unsuccessfully to buy the mineral rights to the property but moved in anyway.

Then she came home one day and found the three-mile country road to her home filled with trucks, perhaps as many as 80. The couple lost a fruit and pecan orchard they had planted. They managed to find a buyer for the house and moved back to Denton — where they soon found themselves in the vicinity of a new well.

Has she thought about moving again?

“This is my roots, this is my home,” McMullen says. She didn’t see the point in people moving away. There are reserves of shale that have yet to be tapped or fully exploited. Eventually, she says, “They’re going to be drilling in everybody’s backyard.”

Tagged with: texas, public health, fracking, earthquakes

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