A Plan for Dallas’ Gas Drilling Taskforce

Cities across the country have been struggling to address the health, safety and environmental issues associated with a new gas drilling technique known as hydro-fracking, where large volumes of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals are injected deep into the ground to release natural gas trapped in rock.

Last month, the Dallas City Council agreed to delay a drilling permit vote until a city-appointed taskforce could review and revise the city’s drilling ordinance.  However, a taskforce proposal has not been forthcoming, and concerned residents have regularly voiced their frustration to the City Council about this delay.

Creating a gas drilling taskforce is a critical first step in evaluating the hazards that may be posed by hydro-fracking.  Just today, The New York Times issued a troubling report:

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Given the growing evidence of risks associated with hydro-fracking, the Dallas City Council must move swiftly to address the safety of this practice.  To move this issue forward, last week I proposed to my colleagues the formation of a Gas Drilling Taskforce, outlining its composition and responsibilities based on best practices and lessons learned from other North Texas cities.  Among other things, the Gas Drilling Taskforce will be responsible for proposing revisions to the city’s gas drilling ordinance and forwarding their recommendations to the Dallas City Council.

The health and welfare of Dallas residents is paramount.  Since time is short (the vote on one gas drilling permit has been reset for October), I will be working with my colleagues to implement the Gas Drilling Taskforce as quickly as possible.

Gas Drilling and Dallas’ Water Supply

Gas drilling is slowly creeping into the Dallas area and as I said nearly three years ago, I continue to be concerned about the possible environmental and health dangers associated with this industry.

Recent news has highlighted the dangers of gas drilling and drinking water contamination:

XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, is under investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) after a 13,000 gallon hydraulic fracturing fluid spill at XTO Energy’s natural gas drilling site in Penn Township, Lycoming County, PA.

The spill was first discovered last week by a DEP inspector who found a valve had been left open on a 21,000-gallon fracking fluid tank, discharging fluid off the well pad into local waterways, threatening a nearby cattle herd that had to be fenced off from the contaminated pasture. Exxon/XTO has not provided an explanation on why the valve was left open

“This spill was initially estimated at more than 13,000 gallons by the company and has polluted an unnamed tributary to Sugar Run and a spring,” said DEP Northcentral Regional Director Nels Taber. “There are also two private drinking water wells in the vicinity that will be sampled for possible impacts.”

DEP’s sampling confirmed elevated levels of conductivity and salinity in the spring and unnamed tributary, clear indications that the fracking fluid was present in the waterways.

The Huffington Post, Nov. 22, 2010

XTO has requested several drilling permits from the City of Dallas, and I agree with Dallas City Councilmember Neumann that we need to defer these requests until an independent taskforce can fully vet the safety issues involved.

More immediately troubling, however, is that a company named Keystone wants a variance from the Town of Flower Mound to drill less than 500 feet from Lake Grapevine, a source for Dallas’ drinking water:

Dallas Water Utilities officials are concerned about contamination over a request to drill for natural gas beside Grapevine Lake in Flower Mound.

The lake is a major drinking water source for The City of Dallas, Highland Park, Grapevine and other customers of Dallas Water Utilities including Flower Mound.

Flower Mound rules forbid drilling within 500 feet of an environmentally sensitive area.

A variance request pending with the Town of Flower Mound asks to allow drilling much closer in this case.

“It’s all in the drainage area that goes into Lake Grapevine,” said Dallas Water Utilities Assistant Director Charles Stringer.

“So it’s of concern to us whether it’s one foot or 500 feet. And we just don’t want to see any brine or any other waste products coming from the well, entering in the water supply. That’s our main concern,” Stringer said.

Gas wells dot the western side of The Metroplex but Stringer said this is the first one proposed so close to a City of Dallas drinking water reservoir.

Ken Kaltoff, NBC5, Nov. 25, 2010

As noted by DallasDrilling.com, a public hearing will be held on Wednesday, December 15th at 6:30 p.m. before the Town of Flower Mound Oil and Gas Board of Appeals.  Keystone has requested numerous variances from current regulations, including its proximity to Lake Grapevine and its location in a FEMA floodplain.

I plan to attend the meeting, and have asked city staff to take whatever steps necessary to protect Dallas’ water supply.

Council Foregoes Public Hearings Before Leasing Public Land for Gas Drilling

On Wednesday, the council discussed a proposal for the city to lease city-owned land to private companies so they can drill for gas on public property. The proposal will allow gas drilling and wells within 300 feet of residential neighborhoods and public parks. In return, the private companies will give the city $32 million.

Have you heard about this? No? Perhaps because there weren’t any public hearings to discuss whether we, as a city, want to have drilling rigs and gas wells littering Dallas’ landscape.

Here are my objections with this entire issue:

First, no community input. When the council discussed an ordinance on gas drilling last Fall, I suggested we put one of the 150-foot gas drilling rigs out on the City Hall plaza and let residents come by and see what they think. I objected then, and object now, to the idea that we would do something like this without having public hearings. This is something we’re going to have to live with for decades, and we’re not asking residents what they think?

I just read an article in the Star-Telegram that pointed out the buyers’ remorse some Fort Worth residents are feeling over the city’s decision to drill for gas:

I do know that we didn’t ask enough questions at the beginning of this gung-ho gas drilling process, primarily because most of us simply didn’t know what questions to ask.

The new drilling techniques were to be minimally obtrusive, with the rigs only on-site for a handful of days and the finished wellheads basically out of sight or hardly noticeable….

Despite attempts by some companies to camouflage the destructiveness of natural gas drilling, we’ve already seen a terrible scarring of the land, with large swaths being cleared for access to rigs and the laying of miles of pipeline.

In several parts of town, I’m seeing the ugly industrial sites necessary to support this growing industry, where machinery like I’ve never seen has to be stored and maintained.

Large trucks are crowding and destroying streets that led to once-quiet neighborhoods. And many of us have just begun to learn that some of those massive mobile tanks are hauling waste water that we still haven’t figured out how to handle — whether to inject it into the ground in our own city or ship somewhere else to become someone else’s problem.

–“That upset feeling — was it something we swallowed? Barnett Shale” by Bob Ray Sanders (Fort Worth Star-Telgram, Dec. 9, 2007)

Second: I don’t like being railroaded. The City Manager told us if we didn’t approve the lease, we’d lose $20M from this year’s budget and another $14M from next year’s. What? How could staff have counted on this money when the council had not yet approved the drilling leases? When we had our council retreat last July and the gas drilling issue came up, both Mitchell Rasansky and I specifically instructed city staff NOT to count on this money because the council had not approved the gas drilling. We did not want to be in exactly the position we’re in now.

So here we are: staff puts the council over a barrel by including certain anticipated revenues in the city’s budget, despite the fact that the funding source for that revenue has not been approved by the council. The philosophy seems to be: “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” By including the gas lease funds in the budget prematurely, staff ensured that most of the council would have qualms about eliminating the revenue source, which would necessitate “budget cuts.” Then we’re told we’re in a rush to get the lease done, and we can’t possibly wait for public input. (Mitchell Rasansky wryly pointed out that the gas had been down there for a few million years; it could wait another couple of months.)

Third: If you’re under eighteen stop reading now, because I can’t think of a less crude way to say this: I’m tired of our city whoring itself out for a few measley bucks. There. I said it. I’ve been thinking that a lot, like when we decided it would be fabulous to put up ugly kiosks on tiny sidewalks all over town, for a pittance. Or every time we beg businesses to come to our city and give them tax breaks or other financial incentives out of the public coffers. Or when we give developers excessive zoning rights at the expense of residents/the environment/good design. We need to be more chaste and less desperate. We need to make our city attractive to businesses by making our city safer, improving our schools, and cleaning up/beautifying Dallas. We need to force new developments to provide generous sidewalks and use quality materials that will last. We need to protect our few natural assets like Timbercreek and the Trinity River.

Fourth: Ah, the tranquility of Dallas parks. Did I mention that the six-page list of addresses of leased property includes the Trinity River Park as well as Grauwyler Park and Bachman Lake Park? Oh, and Love Field, too. Makes sense, right? Airplanes, gas wells, parks, gas wells. Sure!

At the end of the day, I proposed that we postpone the issue 90 days while we hold neighborhood meetings and gather public input. We need to discuss this with Dallas residents. We need to talk about safety concerns, environmental impact, risk of water contamination, the future costs of possible environmental remediation.

Unfortunately, everyone except Councilmember Rasansky and I voted against getting public input before doing the leases. Those against the motion argued that each drilling site would require a public hearing and council approval, and that’s when residents would have their say. But that misses two key points: One, residents might like to have been consulted not just on individual gas wells, but on the overarching issue of whether they want gas drilling on public land in Dallas. Two, the council will NOT have the “absolute right” to refuse every drilling request. The drilling companies aren’t giving the city $34M to get absolutely nothing in return. We can’t turn down every single permit and not expect a lawsuit. And we can’t refuse a permit just because residents don’t like the idea of drilling near their homes. So we’ll be forced to do some drilling, somewhere.