Important civic issues have a way of sneaking up on you. They do that, typically, by being so goddamned boring that you ignore them until it's impossible to do otherwise. Garbage, redistricting, municipal judge appointments: Those were just a few of the hotly debated topics that all of us did our best to avoid, right up until the point that "hotly debated" meant City Council members were yelling at each other about racism and staging dramatic walkouts. (Seriously, you should start watching the Wednesday council meetings on public access television. Better than a dozen telenovelas).
One of the longest-running debates you likely haven't been paying attention to is gas drilling within city limits. Since 2007 or so, it's been discussed in stultifying City Hall hearings, fulminated against on environmentalists' blogs and had its pros and cons weighed in newspaper articles you skipped right over in favor of reading about that teacher who had group sex with everybody.
Yes, it's unsexy. But it's here. In the coming weeks or months, Dallas City Council members will finally vote on new regulations for drilling inside the city limits. Those rules, if drilling companies and sympathetic-minded council members get their way, will allow for drilling in parkland, in the floodplains along the Trinity River and in some cases as near as 500 feet from places like houses and schools.
A growing body of scientific literature suggest that gas drilling, specifically the process of fracking (pouring millions of gallons of water and chemicals down a well to break up shale below ground and release the natural gas trapped in it) has negative effects on air quality, might contaminate groundwater, increases the numbers of small earthquakes around disposal well sites (where the waste water from fracking is deposited), and may allow you to increase the amount of tap water that you can set on fire by 100 percent.
Meanwhile, millions of dollars in city coffers suggest that drilling companies paid a lot of bucks for leases around here, and they will get mighty disgruntled and probably quite litigious if their drill bits don't end up in some soil soon. Five years ago, Dallas officials began soliciting gas drilling companies to buy leases on city-owned land; two companies, Trinity East and XTO, ended up paying around $33.7 million to purchase leases. The city also stands to receive 25 percent royalties on gas drawn by Trinity East. From XTO, they've been promised a 26 percent royalty as well as $50,000 per acre used for drilling. At the time the leases were bought, the city ordinances regulating drilling were either frighteningly lax or remarkably respectful of the power of the free market, depending on your point of view.
|Click to embiggen and play The Game of Frack!|
"We thought we were going to talk about whether drilling was safe enough to happen in an urban area," says task force member Cherelle Blazer. She's a Yale-educated scientist who heads an environmental nonprofit, You Can't Live In the Woods. "By the time I was appointed and we were briefed on what our charge was, it changed into a foregone conclusion and we were just there to decide on an ordinance."
In June of last year, Blazer joined two other members meant to represent "neighborhood and environmental interests." Three people from the gas industry were also appointed, along with three supposedly neutral "subject matter experts." The group met for more than eight months, three months longer than they'd planned. From the start, Blazer says, pressure from community groups and energy companies alike was intense. "The frequency from the activists was more, but industry was very, very persistent," she says. "Before and after each meeting, they'd tell us what our decision should be or what the ramifications of our vote that day were and tell us how they wanted us to vote." Occasionally, she says, they'd send polite emails to let the task force members know that a proposed rule was overly restrictive and "The City probably would have to go to court about that."
In the end, in a true spirit of compromise, the task force ended up with recommended rules that made both sides very grumpy. Dallas Cothrum, a zoning consultant who represents a number of energy companies, griped to the Morning News that the new rules amounted to a "moratorium" on drilling, while environmental groups said the proposed setbacks and rules for floodplains and parkland weren't strict enough.
The proposed rules included a 1,000-foot setback from homes, churches, schools and retail structures. But it said the City Council should be able to grant a variance to that rule, allowing just a 500-foot setback if 12 of the 15 of them voted for it. They recommended some parkland be opened to drilling, if it's not currently being used as a public park or playground and if it's near an industrial area. And the company doing the drilling would be required to minimize "dust, vibrations and odor" from its drilling site and to prevent groundwater contamination. It would also have to bear the cost for various water sampling and monitoring equipment.
Guess what? None of it matters. The City Council is obligated to take exactly none of the task force's suggestions. They've met privately with the city attorney at least once, presumably to hash out who they'd like to be sued by the least.
As we await a final set of rules -- ones which we predict will allow drilling in parks, floodplains, playgrounds and any hairdo over a certain height -- we've put together this handy board game to explain this complicated history. Gather around it with your loved ones and use it to guide you through the drilling process. Or wait six months or so and just watch it from your window.
Next up: A handy glossary to help you understand the fracking debate. Plus: Meet the players.