Big D’s BFD

Big D BFDDid you feel the ground shifting under your feet yesterday around 5 pm? It was another one of those local earthquakes caused by fracking. The epicenter was Dallas City Hall. Damage to the gas industry's rhetoric and credibility was extensive.

By a vote of 14 to 1, the Dallas Plan Commission pronounced the permissive "Fort Worth Model" of regulating the drilling and production of natural gas in the Barnett Shale dead. The passing was definitive. As John Cleese might say, "This paradigm is no more…it has ceased to be…this is an EX-paradigm."

It didn't go down without a fight. Up until the very final hours of debate over language in the City's proposed new gas ordinance, staff was still offering weaker versions of rules to Commission members because "that's the way Fort Worth did it." They were all rejected in favor of stricter standards as part of what has the potential to be the most protective ordinance in the Barnett Shale.

Now all we have to do is get eight Dallas City Council members to help us realize that potential.

The draft passed yesterday isn't 100% of what residents want, and in one case doesn't even match the level of protection Dallas itself started out with in 2007. It still provides paths through the bureaucracy for drilling in parks and flood plains, instead of outright bans, and despite staff assurances, the chemical disclosure language isn't foolproof. But to see it only through the lens of what it's not yet doing is to ignore the huge impact of what it already does. Coming from the largest city in the Shale, the Dallas draft immediately offers a modern, tougher alternative to Ft. Worth's submissiveness for dealing with the problems of mining gas in urban environments. To quote our Vice-President, it's a B.F.D. Some of the highlights include:

1) A 1,500 property line-to-property line setback from neighborhoods and other protected uses, matching the most protective setbacks in the Barnett Shale. It can only be reduced to a minimum of 1000 feet with a variance, and that's only possible with 12 out of 15 council votes. Notice of any permit must go out in English and Spanish to all mailing addresses within 2000 feet and the applicant must hold a neighborhood meeting where the project is fully explained.

2) Electrification of all motors and engines on a drilling site. If operators want to make an exception and use combustion engines, they have to show why electrification isn't feasible, and the City has to agree.

3) Tough restrictions on where gas compressor stations can locate – only in heavy industry zoning districts, with the same 1,500 foot setbacks from neighborhoods and all other protected uses, fully enclosed, and they must use electric engines, not diesel or gas. Thanks to some quick pushback by residents and their allies on he Commission, we were able to win back all the rules that staff had excluded in their first take only 24 hours before the vote.

4) A ban on any injection wells in the City of Dallas.

5) A ban on fracking waste pits.

6) Requirements for a road repair agreement before a permit is even considered. This is above and beyond any other insurance or bonding requirement.

7) A recommendation to the Council that it establish a local air pollution off-sets program that would include natural gas facilities. Such a program would be the first of is kind in the nation and close a Clean Air Act loophole that exempts these facilities from participating in the federal off-sets program for smoggy "non-attainment areas."

8) Baseline testing of water, soil, air, and noise at every proposed site.

9) Individual non-toxic "tagging" of all fracking fluids used. Every operator will be required to put their unique chemical signature within the concoction they're pumping into the ground so that if any of it goes where it shouldn't, the offending well can be identified. It's DNA testing for fracking.

10) A recommendation to the Council that during drought conditions,  it either charge substantially more for city water that's being used for fracking, or ban the use of city water for fracking all together.

11) A recommendation that the Council demand an additional letter of credit from operators beyond any other insurance or bond  to cover uninsurable intentional acts of contamination, i.e. dumping waste into the Trinity River.

We're not in Cowtown anymore.

(There's not an online version of the final language up yet. We'll let you know when there is so you can look this thing over yourselves).

City attorney Tammy Palomino, always a reliable source of information, stated on the record that she believed the draft's language about chemical disclosure would cover all trade secrets, but we're not so sure. That's why we'll be asking the Council to add five simple words to this section that Ms. Palomino didn't: "with no exceptions for trade secrets."

Instead of banning drilling in the floodplain, the proposed ordinance makes it impractical, though not impossible. An operator would have to get a fill permit from the city, and approved by the Army Crop of Engineers, to build a mound that would elevate the entire drilling pad site out of the floodplain. Anyone who's seen the footage from Colorado's flooded gas plays over the last couple of weeks can identify the folly of this approach. What's to keep flood waters from eroding the elevated mound and taking the entire pad site down stream? Only the lack of a kind of levee-to-levee flood we've seen in Dallas before.

Park drilling provided the day's lesson in pretzel logic. A "protected use" includes a recreation area, "except when the operation site is on a public park, playground, or golf course." Then it's perfectly fine to have rig next to the swing set. Got it?

This is less protective than the original Dallas Park decision that preceded the notorious Suhm secret agreement with Trinity East. It called for the leasing of a park's mineral rights but banned surface drilling in any park. You could go under but not on. That's still the most sensible compromise but it went floundering for support yesterday.

Instead, the Park Board will have to request the City Council to hold "Chapter 26" public hearing, after which there must be a 3/4 vote of approval by the Council that officially concludes there's no other possible feasible use for the park land other than gas drilling.

Listening to the comments from many Commissioners right before the vote, one got the feeling that if they had to do it all over, they might not be so equivocal. Nevertheless, they all voted for the more convoluted approach. It's the most flawed part of the ordinance, especially in light of the outcry over allowing any drilling in any public park during the Trinity East fight.

With those exceptions, it was a banner day for residents who've been fighting this good fight for over three years now. It was the kind of day that after Trinity East's main lobbyist whined that the company just couldn't get the electrical hook-ups they needed (in the middle of Northwest Dallas by a major Interstate) during the public hearing right before the final vote, an influential conservative Commissioner successfully moved to amend the completed draft to make the section on mandatory electrification of compressor stations stronger. Ouch.

It was the kind of day when the only ally industry could muster among the 15 Plan Commissioners was the sometimes coherent Betty Culbreath, Dwaine Caraway's brand new gift to Dallas residents. Culbreath said she couldn't vote in conscience for a document that required so much from industry. She felt so passionate about the issue, she missed most of the Commission workshops over the past month or so where the ordinance language was debated.  It'd be laughable except the council member who appointed her is now the Chair of the Council's Environmental Committee.

There's no official news about the timeline or process the Council will use to consider the draft now that it's been delivered to them. Despite the mostly winning day residents had on Thursday, its sobering to remember that we only got six votes to deny the Trinity East permits. We need at least two more to make sure this good ordinance stays intact, or gets even stronger.

Such a lopsided Commission result gives us a great running start to get those votes. Backsliding by Council members will be hard to pull-off publicly, although let's face it, some seem immune to embarrassment on this issue. 

Cowtown circa 2008 will always be the industry's preferred template for regulation, because they mostly wrote the rules. Residents in the Shale now have a much more citizen-friendly 2013 Big D model they can use for counterpoint – if we can win ACT III of the Dallas Gas Wars. 

Meanwhile, we'll see you at the movies...

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