It seems the waiting game might finally be over in Dallas. After years of city government lollygagging, residents appear to be closer to an answer on whether the city will be open to fracking. On Thursday the City Plan Commission rejected natural gas producer Trinity East’s drilling permits, which have been the center of contention in Dallas’ fight over fracking. The final decision ultimately rests in the hands of the City Council, but it would take a supermajority of 12 of its 15 members to override the commission’s vote.
The commission had previously voted against the permits (one of which includes plans for a gas processing plant), but its chair called for a rehearing, which was later rescheduled in February. The punt was the latest in a series of inconclusive moves on the part of the city that began in 2008 when it opened up bidding of public lands to natural gas producers. Though the city was able to bolster its budget with the lease contracts, the money was perhaps more trouble than it was worth.
Trinity paid Dallas $19 million to lease the land, which is technically city parkland and in the Trinity River floodplain. Dallas’ current gas drilling ordinance bans drilling in both places. Sparing you the confusing particulars, it came to light in February that Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm had brokered a secret side-deal with Trinity in 2008. She had included the parkland in the lease without the City Council’s knowledge. Suhm also told Trinity that her staff would help the company secure drilling permits. Council Member Angela Hunt recently called Suhm out on her actions, but most of the council rose to the city manager’s defense (there were some Biblical references), and Suhm maintains she did nothing wrong.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has said the city wants to avoid a lawsuit, but whether Trinity will pursue legal action or not remains to be seen. Calls to Dallas Cothrum, a zoning consultant who has been representing Trinity through this whole ordeal, were not returned.
Cothrum was one of a handful of people who spoke in favor of the Trinity permits at Thursday’s hearing. Other than the Trinity representatives, which also included president and CEO Tom Blanton, only three speakers supported the permits, while those opposing them numbered more than 50.
Jim Schermbeck of the North Texas environmental group Downwinders at Risk says fracking opponents’ overwhelming presence at the Thursday hearing represents a turning point in Dallas’ environmental scene. “This is one of those once-in-a-decade fights that determine how much power local residents and local environmentalists have,” he said, “and I think the establishment has been surprised about what kind of a pushback there’s been to what many council people assumed would be a done deal.”
Irving City Council Member Rose Cannaday was among the speakers opposing the permits, and said Trinity East’s sister company had sunk some problematic gas wells in Irving, according to the Dallas Morning News. Cannaday was referring to a failed well casing near the University of Dallas that an earlier Morning News story connects to the Dallas sites under debate. After its first well in Irving had a well-casing failure, Trinity’s sister company, Expro, built a second one to correct the problem, but later had to change its location.
…Expro changed the lease unit, cutting some acres and adding others – most significantly, adding 170 acres of Dallas’ city-owned land just east of the Elm Fork, land that Trinity East had already leased.
Geography suggests how vital the Dallas sites might be, especially the one where Trinity East wants to build its gas processing plant. It is almost squarely in the middle of its holdings. Running right by it and near most of the leases is a rail line – a possible route for a pipeline right of way to and from the plant.
Last year, Trinity East president Steve Fort told The Dallas Observer that Dallas is “a critical piece of our master plan.” That and other circumstances suggest the possibility of a lawsuit if the city says no.
The City Plan Commission’s Thursday vote doesn’t definitively seal Trinity’s fate, nor the fate of fracking within city limits. During the hearing, Commissioner Tony Hinojosa tried to delay the vote (yet again) until June, citing the need for further study. The motion failed, but it raises the question of when the City Council will take up the matter: before or after some of its members are out or up for reelection in May. Angela Hunt has announced she’s leaving in May, and Scott Griggs (the only other Council member to have stood up to Suhm) will have to fight for his seat.
Whoever its members, the City Council will have the final word. So far the odds are not in Trinity’s favor.