D Day (Drilling Day) Minus 8: Latest on Dallas Gas Ordinance

by jim on December 4, 2013

dallascityhall2If you can, please be sure and attend and speak-up during the public comment time being offered by the Dallas City Council today at 1 pm. Although hastily-called on the day before Thanksgiving, this "unofficial" hearing is a chance for you to speak to Council Members while things still seem to be in motion at City Hall, as opposed to next Wednesday's official hearing and vote, when things might have already been settled.

In other ordinance-related news……

 – The Dallas Morning News published an excellent editorial in today's edition (reprinted below) urging the council to approve the City Plan Commission draft ordinance as is. "Council members should remember that their first obligation is to protect existing neighborhoods. This proposal is reasonable and offers far better protections for residents than had existed on the books. The council should adopt it."

 – According to more than one source at City Hall, Dallas "Sustainability Department" staffer David Cossum, and our old friend City Attorney Tammie Palomino were going door-to-door through the council members offices trying to drum up support for a 1500 foot maximum buffer zone that then could be reduced to as little as 500 feet with a "variance."  This is an option that has never been on the table before – it was never discussed by the Plan Commission, who wanted a 1000 foot minimum. You'll recall these are the same City Hall staffers who lead the Gas Drilling Task Force down the garden path to carve out exemptions for the Trinity East permits without public knowledge. They are the same staffers who tried more than once to get the Plan Commission to back down from their support of a 1500 foot setback. According to our sources, the pair failed in getting the majority support they needed to go forward with their scheme. If you think ex-but-still-hanging-around former City Manager Mary Suhm isn't still having an impact at 1500 Marilla, this news should set you straight.

There's a rumor of a deal between Council factions that would preserve the 1500 foot setback but allow variances down to 1000 feet on a 2/3rds vote, instead of the super majority 3/4's proposed by the City Plan Commission. In other words, a motion to reduce the setback or buffer zone from 1500 to 1000 feet for any well would require at least 6 votes to block under the 2/3rds provision vs. just four members having veto power under a 3/4's rule.  We haven't heard a single argument to explain why this tweak is necessary or desirable. It could be petty politics – Rawlings doesn't want Griggs and Company having full veto power. Or it could be something more strategic that has to do with a specific site or operator, the way the City tried to shape the Task Force recommendations for the Trinity East permits without the public knowing what was going on.

If you haven't sent an e-mail to Mayor Rawlings requesting that he vote for the Plan Commission draft and its 1500 foot setback, please click here now and do so. And here's yesterday's post explaining the situation, and offering the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of Mayor Rawlings, Jennifer Staubach-Gates and Dwaine Caraway in case you want to contact the only three uncommitted council members left.

You only have until next Wednesday to influence these votes on the Council. Then it's all over, so please, do it now. Thanks.


Editorial: Dallas must not weaken balanced gas drilling rules

After nearly two years of contentious political haggling, the Dallas City Council will hear public comments Wednesday on proposed tougher gas drilling rules, the final step before the council votes on the plan next Wednesday. This newspaper urges council members to resist pressure to water down the City Plan Commission’s strong measure and adopt those recommendations in their entirety.

The Plan Commission has done a lot of hard work, resulting in new rules that fairly balance the rights of drillers against protections for Dallas neighborhoods from downsides of urban drilling.

For example, the commission is urging the council to enact a minimum 1,500-foot buffer zone around drilling sites, with a provision allowing a reduced 1,000-foot buffer zone in certain circumstances. That was a wise, hard-fought compromise intended to assure neighborhoods are free from excessive noise and possible health threats, and it is in line with setbacks enacted in other North Texas cities, such as Flower Mound.

It is also a major improvement over Dallas’ current rule, which permits drilling within 300 feet of schools, churches and residential areas. Although some council members say the 1,500-foot setback might draw a lawsuit from drillers, the greater distance setback is in the best interests of Dallas residents.

Other key provisions would require drillers to disclose all hazardous materials used on a drilling site, restrict drilling during droughts, and ban wastewater injection wells, which some experts suspect are tied to earthquake activity. We’re also impressed that plan commissioners are urging the council to consider establishing a pollution-offsets program to make sure drilling won’t undermine the region’s overall efforts to clean the air. These all are reasonable and extremely important safeguards that need to be in place before urban drilling is allowed.

Unfortunately, the commission didn’t recommend an outright ban on drilling in floodplains and on parkland, but at least the panel has recommended that the council set a reasonably high bar — a three-quarters vote — before drilling would be permitted in parks.

Overall, this is a good ordinance because it doesn’t give drillers carte blanche yet recognizes that urban gas drilling is part of America’s energy future. Nor does the proposal let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Thus the council should not undo the constructive work of plan commissioners with last-minute changes that would weaken the ordinance.

Council members should remember that their first obligation is to protect existing neighborhoods. This proposal is reasonable and offers far better protections for residents than had existed on the books. The council should adopt it.

• Setbacks of drilling operations from schools, churches and homes to a minimum 1,500-foot buffer zone around all sites. Drillers could request a 1,000-foot zone in certain circumstances.
• Authority for the city to impose water restrictions during drought conditions.
• Requirement for drillers to disclose all hazardous materials used on a site.
• Ban on wastewater injection wells from being drilled within city limits.
• Proposed pollution-offsets program to protect air quality.

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