To Frack or Not to Frack in Dallas

Commission to Vote on Natural Gas Drilling in City.

A Chesapeake Energy contractor drills for natural gas northeast of Cleburne.
Staci Semrad
A Chesapeake Energy contractor drills for natural gas northeast of Cleburne.

After years of opponents and industry arguing, waiting and waiting some more, Dallas’ fracking future might finally come to a vote. In early February a city commission is expected to vote, yet again, on whether to grant Fort Worth-based Trinity East Energy permits to drill on city-owned land. It would be the first gas well sunk within city limits and would affirm Dallas’ stance on the controversial practice of fracking.

Trinity signed a $19 million lease with the city in 2008 and applied to use the land to drill in early 2011. The city of Dallas has been reluctant to issue any drilling permits without first updating its gas drilling ordinance like other nearby cities have done, to accommodate public concerns over noise, air pollution and property setbacks. As a result, Trinity’s permits have been on hold and the issue has been languishing for what all sides agree is far too long.

On Feb. 7, the City Plan Commission is scheduled to vote on permits that would allow Trinity to drill on two city-owned sites and one private tract.

Another company, XTO Energy, has withdrawn its application. The industry says the city will be sending an anti-business message if it rejects Trinity’s applications after taking its money. Activists and some residents maintain that the potential economic benefits of fracking aren’t worth the air and noise pollution that accompany it. They point to reports from citizens in the Barnett Shale that carcinogenic chemicals, such as benzene, are making them sick. Activists have held out hope that Dallas might take a high-profile stand against urban drilling in a state that has a notoriously laissez-faire attitude toward oil and gas production. The February vote could decide whether Dallas remains frack-free or finally welcomes the fracking frenzy.

So far city government has been putting the decision off, much to the dismay of both industry and environmental activists. In 2011 the city created a gas drilling task force to study natural gas drilling issues and make recommendations on revising the ordinance. The task force handed in its recommendations last March, yet the City Council has remained mute on the matter. The City Plan Commission, a zoning board twice tasked with making a decision on the permits, has twice rejected them, largely on the premise that it has no ordinance to guide it.

“I think the process has been so lengthy and time-consuming and expensive that likely operators have gotten the message that they’re not welcome and they’ll probably go to other places that welcome it,” says Dallas Cothrum, a consultant who is representing Trinity in zoning matters. Dallas, Cothrum says, should be open for drilling, especially in remote locations. Trinity’s sites are sandwiched between a golf course and a landfill-turned-athletic-complex in North Dallas.

But Trinity’s sites present a problem: the land the company intends to drill on is in the Trinity River floodplain and is considered city parkland. The current gas drilling ordinance in Dallas prohibits drilling in both floodplains and city parks. So it seems the city is in a bit of a pickle – either grant Trinity the permits, then rewrite the ordinance to allow drilling in floodplains and city parkland, or reject the permits and possibly invite legal action. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says the city wants to avoid a lawsuit.

Trinity’s opponents also claim the city was deceptive about the extent of the company’s plans. They say they were surprised to learn, late in the process, that Trinity had applied to build an on-site natural gas processing facility in addition to the gas wells. The company had filed for a separate permit for the processing plant, but fracking activists say that the facility was never discussed at public hearings.

Cothrum says the company wasn’t trying to pull one over on the city.

“If it’s a trick, this is the slowest-moving trick play ever,” he says.

One thing the opposing sides agree on: City Council needs to stop dragging its feet.

“The City Council is going out of its way to avoid making a tough decision and they’re making the Plan Commission have to bite the bullet,” says Jim Schermbeck, executive director of Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas environmental group. “It’s a serious lack of leadership on their part not to have already dealt with this.”

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.

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Published at 12:33 pm CST