This story was produced by the non-profit newsroom Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Get its investigations emailed directly to you.
Update, Dec. 1: The Arlington City Council approved TotalEnergies’ request to drill by a vote of 5-4 yesterday.
When the City Council of a Dallas suburb last year rejected TotalEnergies’ bid to drill behind a day care, the story made national news as a sign that the racial reckoning underway had helped a Texas town do what it had almost never done: Say no to drilling.
Wanda Vincent, the owner of Mother’s Heart Learning Center, had campaigned in front of the Arlington City Council, pleading for politicians to protect the children — most of them Black — in her care from the toxic gases the wells leak. She thought she’d won.
So she was stunned to learn a few months ago that TotalEnergies had again proposed to drill behind her day care, which serves some 60 young children. City rules let companies reapply after a year — and TotalEnergies was going for it. Vincent ramped up her activism again, gathering signatures from parents and staff and speaking out at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last month. Then she watched as the commissioners voted unanimously in favor of TotalEnergies’ plan to drill next to her day care.
She has one more chance to stop the drilling, when the final vote goes before the City Council today. If TotalEnergies gets its wishes, it will add three wells to the two that are about 600 feet from the playground at Vincent’s day care.
She believes the increased passions for racial justice that helped propel the council to reject drilling in 2020 have ebbed. Although the City Council members have not declared how they will vote, she’s worried. “They’ll see things differently, seemingly for a moment,” Vincent said. “But it just didn’t seem to last.”
When world leaders met for a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month, they committed to slashing methane emissions and weaning off fossil fuels more quickly to slow catastrophic climate change. But Arlington’s experience shows how difficult it can be to stop the production of a potent greenhouse gas — even when it’s happening right next to small children and putting their health at risk.
Arlington is one of the few places in the United States where lots of drilling takes place in an urban area, close to schools, homes and offices. TotalEnergies, which is headquartered in France and is one of the world’s richest energy companies, does most of it. Regardless of where the drill sites are, the oil and gas operations leak methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the air.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. made a big bet on natural gas as a path to reduced emissions and energy independence. But has that bet gone bad for communities—and the climate?
And while methane gets less attention than carbon dioxide, it has recently become a prime target for fighting climate change, because in addition to being nearly 90 times more potent in the short term than carbon dioxide, methane lasts about a decade in the atmosphere, compared to hundreds of years for carbon dioxide. That means cleaning up methane now will have a much quicker impact on slowing down the warming of the planet.
However, in a place like Arlington, the threat is twofold: In addition to warming the planet, methane and other gases, like toxic benzene, that leak from wells can cause severe health consequences for people nearby. The federal Environmental Protection Agency this month proposed tightening rules to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations like TotalEnergies’ existing wells behind Vincent’s day care and any new ones.
In June, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that more than 30,000 Arlington children go to public school within half a mile of wells, and up to 7,600 infants and young children attend private day cares within that radius. Eighty-five percent of the public school students are children of color. Altogether, more than half of Arlington’s public schools and day care facilities are within a half-mile of active gas production.
In Arlington, officials say they are limited in their authority to stop drilling because of a state law that restricts cities from regulating drilling. The city also has financial incentives to keep the drilling going.
While it’s no secret that the city earns money from gas royalties, the actual amount from each well or each company has never been disclosed publicly. Records obtained by Reveal through a public records request show for the first time the actual figures: Over a four-year period, Arlington received about $5 million in royalties from TEP Barnett, a subsidiary of TotalEnergies. Nearly half of those royalties, $2.2 million, came from the five drill sites that are within several hundred feet of day care facilities. Additionally, the city also has received nearly $3 million in bonus revenue for those five TotalEnergies drill sites.
Three years ago, the City Council rejected TotalEnergies’ bid to drill just 324 feet from another day care and then reversed itself three months later, after the company asked for some its bonus money to be returned, according to an email obtained by Reveal.
It’s normal for companies to pay royalties to the entities that own the gas or oil they’re producing. However, the city’s report on TotalEnergies’ proposal to drill behind Mother’s Heart said it would have no financial impact. Richard Gertson, assistant director of planning and development services, said that language is included by default and has no significance.
Vincent was unaware of royalties and bonuses the city receives, but she and other drilling opponents believe that money has driven leaders’ decisions to allow so much drilling so close to day cares, schools and homes.
“They took advantage of the community because it is a minority community, with Brown and Black people for the most part,” said Vincent, who is Black.
In recent years, scores of scientific studies have linked proximity to drilling to increased health risks, including childhood asthma, childhood leukemia and birth defects. The exposures can come from the fumes of diesel trucks, generators or drilling rigs. They can also come from chemicals used in fracking, as companies extract oil and gas from shale by injecting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals. The exposures can be most intense during the months it takes to drill and fracture wells, but they can continue over the estimated 25-year lifespan of the wells, as gases leak from wells, tanks, pipes and valves.
Children and developing fetuses are especially vulnerable to toxic air pollution, fine particles and other emissions from oil and gas extraction, according to public health experts. Tarrant County, where Arlington is located, has suffered high rates of childhood asthma, birth defects and other potential effects of drilling, but no government agency has ordered the kind of thorough public health assessment to determine whether there’s a connection.
TotalEnergies declined to be interviewed but in a statement said it safely operates 163 wells in 32 locations in Arlington, including its well site near Mother’s Heart.
Kevin Strawser, senior manager for government and public affairs, did not directly answer a question about why TotalEnergies is again trying to drill despite the 2020 vote rejecting the drilling there and petitions by hundreds of parents, teachers and other Arlington residents. “We listen to and do understand the concerns of the local communities with whom we interact frequently to ensure we operate in harmony with them and the local authorities,” he wrote in an email.
When the city does talk about its revenues from gas, it talks about all the benefits it brings. Arlington put the first $100 million in royalties and bonuses into its Tomorrow Foundation, which awards several million dollars a year to a variety of programs, including some that provide medical care to infants or install energy-saving streetlights. The royalty revenues the city receives from TotalEnergies, about a million dollars per year, represent a small fraction of the city’s nearly $565 million annual budget.
Dr. Ignacio Nuñez, a former City Council member and current member of the zoning commission, voted in TotalEnergies’ favor both when the City Council rejected drilling near Mother’s Heart last year and when the commission approved the company’s proposal last month.
Nuñez, a retired obstetrician, says drilling doesn’t belong so close to so many people. But he said he repeatedly approves drilling proposals because he fears the city would be sued. Nuñez and other city officials say their hands are tied by a state law prohibiting fracking bans, one of a wave of state preemption laws limiting local government control over things such as minimum wage, LGBT rights, providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants and mask mandates.
TotalEnergies did not sue after the City Council denied its 2020 request to drill behind Mother’s Heart.
Vincent suggested that if TotalEnergies did sue, the city could use some of its millions from the company to defend itself, and the children, in court. “They‘ve taken all of this money and now they’re acting like their hands are tied. Their hands are not tied,” she said.
During the zoning commission meeting, Strawser said TotalEnergies would take many steps to minimize toxic gas leaking from its equipment at its well sites, including the one near Mother’s Heart.
Arlington required the company to use electric rigs when it began drilling seven wells near two day cares last year. Ten days after TotalEnergies started drilling, local anti-drilling activists saw black smoke billowing from the equipment and alerted the city inspector. After being caught, Total told the city it had been using a diesel rig because an electric rig wasn’t available yet.
“So why didn’t you just wait until December to start?” a city official asked, according to an email chain released to Reveal in response to its public records request.
“I sincerely apologize for catching you and your team off guard. This was not intentional on our end. It was honestly an oversight. We have worked extremely hard to ensure compliance and safety on all aspects of our activities as we prepare for the large operations ahead,” responded TotalEnergies’ Julie Jones.
Diesel exhaust causes serious health conditions, including asthma, and is especially harmful to children.
As the next vote on drilling near Mother’s Heart approaches, drilling opponents fear their big victory in 2020 could be reversed. They watched something similar happen in 2018. After voting in February that year to reject drilling within a few hundred feet of another day care, Cornerstone Academy, the council in May reversed itself. Between those two votes, TotalEnergies wrote the city citing the $800,000 that the company stood to lose and asking for relief from its bonus payment to the city.
The city rejected TotalEnergies’ request for a break on its bonus payment, according to Susan Schrock, a city spokesperson.
Vincent and other drilling opponents believe the money clearly influences the city’s decisions.
“It seems like Cornerstone is extremely lucrative for the city,” said Ranjana Bhandari, executive director of Liveable Arlington, who fought to block drilling at that site. “This was not revealed to us in 2018 when the city reversed its vote, and it would have been good to know. I think transparency in government is extremely important. I think it’s important for public officials to let the community know what’s what.”
This story was edited by Andy Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.