Dallas Gas Wars: Residents 1, Joe Barton 0

Suffergette VictoryCan we just admit up front that we're disappointed The Man himself didn't show up to personally lead the Charge of the Light Crude Brigade at yesterday's Dallas Plan Commission public hearing on a new gas drilling ordinance? We thought after Wednesday's passionate personal pleas for turnout at the Society of Petroleum Engineers' monthly meeting, Ol' Smokey Joe would surely have the courage of his convictions. Sadly, no.

Instead, he left the righteous fight against radical environmentalists to seven or eight heavily-outnumbered industry engineers and attorneys who showed-up and told the Commission that a 1,500 foot setback was tantamount to a ban on drilling in Dallas. Almost to a man, (for they were all men) they accused the extremists of persecuting a trouble-free, non-polluting industry that was guilty of none of the awful things being said about it by their opponents. In particular, they sought to tag the environmentalists as uninformed, as out of touch with research and the facts, as hypnotized disciples of Josh Fox. In doing all this however, they could muster no science of their own.

Given over 20 minutes of time to make their industry's case, not one engineer or attorney working within the industry cited even one peer-reviewed, journal-published health study to support their claim of benign impact on public health or the environment. Not a one.

For some time, and through many a fight, we've seen a common thread of industry criticism of the uninformed civilian. It has its roots deep in the pat-them-on-their-well-meaning-head sexism that greeted women like Rachel Carson and Lois Gibbs. It's grown to include anyone that challenges the industry's own cost-benefit analysis. It accuses residents of being "emotional" instead of rational when they disagree with that analysis by asking too many good questions.

And yet…when it comes down to the crunch, it's the industry representatives who appeal to the emotions the most when they raise the flags of jobs and growth and try to get everyone else to salute. It's the industry reps who do the most name-calling and make the most personal charges characterizing their opponents. Call it the Foxifying of industry rhetoric. And it was on full display at the Plan Commission on Thursday. Dallas was denying itself untold riches by effectively sealing off thousands of acres to fracking. It would be a devastating to job growth. No actual studies to prove that mind you, but industry assertions should be treated as facts, especially when they're assertion about economic growth – no matter how self-serving.

There was testimony that parks "are some of the best places to drill." That "there was no way" the industry would ever pollute the air or water. The language was absolutist and, dare we say, non-rational and not supported by the facts. At least, they didn't cite any facts to support those assertions yesterday.

And those radical environmentalists Smokey Joe warned about?

As usual, they included Dallas homeowners association members and presidents, people who owned wells themselves or or leased land for drilling, cancer patients, asthma sufferers, 25 year-olds, 81-year olds, Sierra Club members, Downwinders' board members, long-time Dallas residents and people who just moved here, plus a sprinkling of folks from Farmers Branch, Ft. Worth, Garland and Irving (30 of 35 speakers in favor of a 1,500 foot or more setback gave Dallas addresses) and a lot of women. One of the starkest contrasts between the two sides during the hearing was gender.

And, again, as usual, their representatives did cite studies. Lots of them. Because we've been through this before, because we know we'll be accused of being uninformed civilians, we know what's coming and we load for bear. The most comprehensive epidemiological study in a gas field to date showing increased cancer risks. Check. The most recent CDC study on silica pollution at well pad sites showing ever site tested exceeding federal limits by magnitudes. Check. USGS studies of the small earthquakes caused by fracking and the large ones caused by injection wells. Check and check. Proximity to benzene sources raises Leukemia risks. Check. NOAA study on actual methane releases from gas field being twice industry estimates. Check.

Were there appeals to preserve a good quality of life, clean water and cleaner air? Of course. But in most instances these were backed up by specific facts about fracking that challenged those goals. So that at the end of the day, not only was the Light Crude Brigade outnumbered, they were out-researched by the very bunch of know-nothings they were charging with the crime of misinformation. Most of them women.

That sweetly ironic resonance was the anti-climatic capping of a full day's worth of work for the Commission that included an affirmation of the 1500 foot setback originally agreed to back in June by lunchtime. All of the rhetoric back and forth in the public hearing was over an issue that had been argued and decided behind closed doors in Executive Session some five or so hours before. (You can follow the blow-by-blow live blogging of the Commission's morning meeting at our group Facebook site here, and read accounts of the decision in the DMN, Business Journal, & Observer,)

Winning the second affirmation of the 1500-foot setback at the Commission level now is no small accomplishment, especially since we had staff working against us. Dallas would be the largest city, by far, in the Barnett Shale to adopt such a lengthy setback (Fort Worth has only a 600-foot requirement, with variances even lower than that). As our Vice President might say, it's a BFD.

So if you sent an e-mail to the Commissioners this last week, we thank you very much, because that was the only direct advocacy they saw on this issue from our side before yesterday's decision to stick with 1500 feet was made.

But we've only won this provision as long as we can protect it. That's why it was good to come down to City Hall yesterday and support it anyway. Many of the speakers brought up the example of the last-minute Task Force rollbacks that occurred almost two years ago. With the same staff people who tried to scuttle the 1500 foot agreement still in charge of the ordinance-drafting process and rumors of some vague land swap with Trinity East still floating around, we all need to stay vigilant. And of course, if it reaches the City Council as an official recommendation there's no doubt it will come under fresh attack. But if we can hold it at the CPC, it will make it hard for the Council to change it. That's why it was important to show up yesterday afternoon. Thanks very much to everyone who did.

Another Commission public hearing on the new gas ordinance is scheduled for September 12th in the afternoon – but once again, it's scheduled after the regular zoning cases are heard so no certain start time will be available other than 1:30 pm.  It will concentrate on Air and Water Quality issues, as well as compressors – a subject never broached by the Task Force. We'll be working with our allies in the Dallas Residents at Risk alliance to get information on these issue areas to you, so that you'll once again be able to talk circles around the industry. Stay tuned.

And of course next Wednesday, August 28th will see a final vote on the Trinity East permits we've been battling since right after Thanksgiving. Thanks to the work of council members Scott Griggs, and Philip Kingston, who stopped by and gave a good pep talk to the troops before the hearing began, we believe we have the four council votes it will take to uphold the Commission's denial, but we need your help in bringing other, more reluctant members on board the band wagon. Beginning Monday, Downwinders' featured Citizen Action will be e-mails to the Council, urging them to vote to deny the permits.

After Wednesday's expected final Trinity East permit denial at Dallas City Hall, we're going to have a party to celebrate what is among the most important victories for public health and the environment in Dallas history. We don't know where and we don't know when, but such victories are too few and far between not to officially recognize. Please keep your calendar that night open.

Yesterday's Commission vote was a skirmish, inside a battle, inside a larger war with many fronts. But it was a critical skirmish. And residents won. Next week, we'll bury very bad and unethical gas permits that were "a done deal" as recently as March. Then we'll only have the new ordinance on which to focus.

Slowly but surely, we're doing what we said we would – drawing a line in the Shale in Dallas and stopping the steamroller of industry favoritism that's resulted in so much bad policy and public health harm elsewhere in the region. Dallas is becoming the place where the bad stuff stops rolling east and the good-thinking begins rolling back west.  See you on Wednesday.

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