A Dallas Drilling Scandal Primer

Garbage piling upThanks to everyone who turned out last Thursday for the (abbreviated) public hearing on the Trinity East "zombie" gas permits before the City Plan Commission. Our apologies to those of you who were not allowed to speak by the arbitrary too-soon ending of the hearing. It was one more example of a process gone off the rails when it comes to these permits.

It's now clear that what began as a neighborhood-based effort to fight off irresponsible urban gas drilling three years ago has now grown into not only a turning point for the entire Dallas environmental movement, but as of last week, into the largest Dallas City Hall scandal in years as well. There are suddenly lots of moving parts. Here's a quick summary of what we know as of today.

On Thursday morning, the Dallas Observer broke the story that in 2008 Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm signed a secret side agreement with Trinity East  that essentially turned City Hall into a lobbying machine for the company's gas permits. The first impact of that lobbying was a reversal of the no drill policy in Dallas parks. Only six months after city staff had told the Council and Park Board there would be no surface drilling in Dallas parks allowed, the side agreement Suhm negotiated with Trinity East assured the company that she and her staff were "reasonably confident" they could win permission to drill in parks for the company.

Many Dallas activists have speculated about such an agreement as the only way to explain why city staff seemed to be going out of its way to push through the Trinity East permits, including abruptly re-defining the current gas ordinance on the fly, ignoring or flouting precedents, and declining to bring the usual level of official scrutiny to bear. Suhm and city attorneys kept this document from public view even after years of opposition from neighborhood groups to drilling sites, including Trinity East's. At a time when every city staffer had an obligation to wear the Trinity East agreement on their sleeves, City Hall hid the fact they were working for the company to win its permit. Dallas Councilwoman Angela Hunt has prepared a detailed timeline of Suhm's deception.

Suhm declined to talk directly to the Observer, but instead issued a statement to the Morning News that said, in essence, she was shocked, shocked that anyone could think this side agreement with Trinity was a "back room" deal. Mayor Rawlings is standing by Suhm so far, issuing a statement of support late Thursday that emphasized the "non-binding" nature of the side deal that was "cut," as the Mayor so eloquently put it back in November.  The Observer's Jim Schutze had a take down of both of their official statements on Friday, saying "some stuff just won't spin." 

A growing chorus of groups and individuals are calling for Suhm to resign, as are some Council members like Hunt, and Scott Griggs. Her fate now seems linked to that of the Trinity East permits, since both seem tainted beyond redemption by the disclosure of the side deal. How can any resident or Council member trust what city staff says about the permits? How can any resident or Council member trust that Suhm won't sell them out again?

Meanwhile, the Observer has raised the possibility of Open Records Act violations by the City because it's pretty sure it asked for ALL documents related to the Trinity East permits. Citizens groups and individuals that have been turning in a constant flow of Open Records Act requests for the last three to four years might also have the same gripe.

But they'd have to take a number because four people, including Downwinders Director Jim Schermbeck, Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, Raymond Crawford of Dallas Residents for Responsible Drilling, and Marc McCord of frackDallas went down to the District Attorney's office and filed a criminal complaint against the City Plan Commission Chair on Wednesday, alleging a violation of the Open Meetings Act prior to the January 10th vote to "reconsider" the Commission's denial of the permits. According to the complaint, Chair Joe Alcantar called members and lobbied them to vote for reconsideration in a practice called "daisy-chaining a quorum" that is explicitly against the law. If the charge is substantiated by an investigation, all subsequent decisions about the permits by the Commission could be invalidated. That would mean reverting back to the original December denial of the permits.

On the political front, John Carona, the Republican State Senator whose district includes the Elm Fork Soccer Complex, sent a letter to Mayor Rawlings, urging him to withdraw his support for the Gas Refinery and Compressor Station proposed for only 600 feet west of the Complex. Democrat State Representative Rep. Lon Burnam of Ft. Worth sent a similar letter, further isolating the Mayor politically.

In all, quite the "goat (act of procreation)", as the Observer's Brantley Hargrove labeled the whole Trinity East controversy last month.

What happens now?

Officially, the City Plan Commission put off any (legitimate or not) vote on the permits until its March 21st meeting. They have now specifically requested the Council deal with changing the current prohibitions against parkland and floodplain drilling before they're asked again to violate the law. So theoretically, the show now moves to the whole City Council, which has scheduled a 1:00 pm Wednesday, February 27th state-mandated public hearing on the city permanently removing park land from the city park system for drilling.

This same hearing has been scheduled twice before however, only to be canceled when the City Plan Commission didn't get around to doing what the Council couldn't bring itself to do first. Up to now the Mayor's strategy was to push the permits through the Plan Commission and Park Board to provide a cover for Council approval of drilling activity in parks and flood plains that's still not allowed. Apparently there's enough resentment about that among Plan Commission members for them to toss the hot potato back to the Mayor and Council. But it does so exactly as the Suhm memo hits and makes political support for the permits more tenuous.

We'll know soon whether the February 27th City Council hearing on turning over park lands to drilling is really on or not. Stay tuned.

Open Meetings Act Violation Filed Against Dallas Plan Commission Chair

(Dragnet(This release was sent out Wednesday afternoon…..)

(Dallas)—In the latest twist over the ordeal of what to do with old gas leases in Dallas, citizens have accused the Mayor’s appointee to the City Plan Commission of taking actions that may have resulted in a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act while trying to reverse a denial of gas drilling permits for the last of those leases.

A group of four individuals representing themselves and various citizen and environmental organizations filed an official complaint with the District Attorney’s office alleging that CPC Chair Joe Alcantar individually lobbied Plan Commissioners over the phone prior to the CPC’s January 10th meeting in order to win a rare “reconsideration” vote to grant permits for Trinity East’s three controversial gas drilling and production sites in Northwest Dallas.

Lawyers familiar with the statute say if that’s what happened, it could be a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act known as “daisy-chaining.” Not only would the January 10th reconsideration vote itself be illegal, but any action resulting from that vote – like Thursday’s scheduled public hearing on the reconsideration – could also be illegal.

In a letter to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, City Manager Mary Suhm and City Attorney Tom Perkins, the group referred to the complaint, noting that at least three different Commissioners had independently confirmed that Mr. Alcantar, appointed by the Mayor, systematically called each of them to lobby for the favorable reconsideration vote.

“In this instance, we believe there’s a prima facie case that Mr. Alcantar met (via telephone) with members of the Plan Commission in number more than a quorum to discuss public business in private, the letter reads. “We believe this may constitute a criminal violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

The letter asks Mayor Rawlings to join the group in requesting a full investigation by the District Attorney’s office of the circumstances surrounding the January 10th vote. 

“As a result of our concerns, an official complaint, enclosed, has been filed with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. We want this matter fully investigated by an objective and independent third party. We ask that you join us in that call for a full investigation by the District Attorney.”

Members of the groups said that while they don’t know for certain if illegal activity took place, the allegations fit the profile of a City Hall that’s twisting the machinery of municipal government in order to get the result it wants.

“There’s no question that someone at City Hall has been tightening the screws on the City Plan Commission,” said Jim Schermbeck of the local clean air group Downwinders at Risk. “Whether that degenerated into the criminal behavior outlined in our complaint is for the District Attorney to discover.”

Besides Schermbeck, Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, Raymond Crawford of Dallas Residents for Responsible Drilling, and Marc McCord of FracDallas all signed the complaint and the letter. They also all criticized the lack of transparency that has marked Dallas City Hall’s push for gas permits.

 “Ever since the original gas leases were signed in Dallas, City officials have retreated behind closed doors,” said Molly Rooke of the Dallas Sierra Club. “This is just another example of a back-room deal’ that affects every Dallas resident, but that no one sees until after the fact.”

Others in the group cited recent legal backflips by the City in what to call a proposed gas processing and compressor station facility just a few hundred feet from the new Elm Fork Soccer Complex. Last year it was a processing plant that would have required a special zoning district. This year, city attorneys say it’s only routine drilling equipment.

“The City is desperately pulling out all the stops in trying to get Trinity East’s gas permits approved,” said Zac Trahan of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They’ve taken ridiculous positions and attempted parliamentary trickery, but this time their tactics may have gone too far.



Reporters have asked why we're not naming the Commissioners who described the Chair's actions. Here's why:

We don't believe anyone but the Chair is responsible for the illegal conduct and we don't want anyone else implicated. We'll talk about what we know under oath as part of an official investigation. If individual Commissioners want to speak to reporters on their own, that's their business, but we're not going to drag them into this just for publicity's sake.

Cuts in Methane and PM Pollution Can Slow Climate Change

In an opinion piece in The Daily Climate, Michael MacCraken, the chief scientist for the DC-based Climate Institute advocates an end-run strategy to avoid the political logjam over large CO2 cuts as a way to fight global warming. He suggests concentrating on reducing Methane and Particulate Matter pollution as a way to "appreciably slow the rate of warming over the next several decades." He cites an earlier UN study that concluded:

"…a moderately aggressive international emissions control program focused on the short-lived compounds could roughly halve the projected warming between the present and 2050. While slowing the warming through this approach might seem to also offer additional time for cutting CO2 emissions, this is not the case. Instead, these actions are more appropriately viewed as partially making up for earlier policy delays.

For the United States to do its share, aggressive limits on CO2 emissions must be complemented by aggressive limits of emissions of short-lived species. In particular, the Environmental Protection Agency will need to be more aggressive in cutting short-lived emissions, particularly of methane from the oil and gas industry, and making its voluntary methane and black carbon programs mandatory.

With climate change so far along, the question now is no longer whether impacts can be avoided, but rather how bad they will become. What we do with respect to both mitigation and adaptation will control that outcome. The longer we wait, the worse the impacts and sharper the required energy transition."

While methane gradually breaks down in the atmosphere, forming carbon dioxide, it has 100 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide for the first 20 years it’s exposed to the environment. A study by Cornell University Environmental Biology Professor Robert Howarth found between four and eight percent of the methane produced by a fracking well is leaked into the atmosphere during the well’s lifetime. For all the immediate environmental benefits of natural gas, the methods used for its extraction could create a larger greenhouse footprint than oil or coal over time.

EPA is considering a new national PM pollution standard because of its public health impacts and should use the opportunity to win deeper cuts that offer so many "co-benefits." Every reduction in soot is now doubly important. Cars, cement kilns, coal plants, and just about any industrial boiler or furnace spews out PM. They all need to be targeted as part of a larger effort to bring this kind of pollution under better control.

This impact on global warming is also one more reason why Dallas residents should be demanding that the city incorporate some kind of "off-sets" policy regarding new oil and gas air pollution as part of a new City drilling ordinance. Not only can it hep reduce smog and some of the toxins released by the drilling and processing of natural gas; it can also provide some needed help for climate change at a time when the city is just squeaking by its own greenhouse gas reduction goals.

When the Gas Industry Says “Full Disclosure,” It Only Means 65%

According to an EneryWire analysis, "at least one chemical was kept secret in 65 percent of fracking disclosures" by companies that publicly disclosed the ingredients in their hydraulic fracturing fluid.

The study supports the claims of critics including Downwinders, that companies who say they're fully disclosing the contents of their fracking fluids aren't really doing so. Downwinders has joined other members of the Dallas Residents at Risk alliance in calling for the City of Dallas to require true full disclosure of all fracking fluids in order to better protect first responders.

Industry claims it has a right to prevent the public, including doctors, firefighters, and police from knowing certain "trade secret" ingredients in their fracking fluids and every clearinghouse for ingredient information – including the much-heralded one established in Texas – allows for the use of this exemption. This trade use exemption is what the EnergyWire analysis tracked.

"It's outrageous that citizens are not getting all the information they need about fracking near their homes," said Amy Mall, who tracks drilling issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Companies should not be able to keep secrets about potentially dangerous chemicals they're bringing into communities and injecting into the ground near drinking water."

But companies say they spend millions of dollars researching and developing new formulations of frack fluid and shouldn't have to give away their secret recipes.

"In just the past 18 months, the industry has spearheaded an effort that took us from an idea on paper about disclosure to a fully functional and user-friendly disclosure system," said Steve Everley of Energy in Depth, a campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "That kind of commitment and progress cannot be overstated in a discussion about industry disclosure."

This is very simple. If your a Dallas firefighter responding to an accident at a gas facility site, you need to know what chemicals are on site, how much of those chemicals are there, and where they're stored. No exceptions.

Study: Gas Drilling “Significantly” Increasing DFW Smog

In the middle of another bad North Texas ozone season, a new study by a Houston research consortium concludes that Barnett Shale natural gas facilities "significantly" raise smog levels in DFW, affecting air quality far downwind.

According to the study, ozone impacts from gas industry pollution are so large, they'll likely keep North Texas from being able to achieve the EPA's new 75 parts per billion (ppb) ozone standard.

Author Eduardo P. Olaguer, a Senior Research Scientist and Director of Air Quality Research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, concludes that, "Major metropolitan areas in or near shale formations will be hard pressed to demonstrate future attainment of the federal ozone standard, unless significant controls are placed on emissions from increased oil and gas exploration and production….urban drilling and the associated growth in industry emissions may be sufficient to keep the area (DFW) in nonattainment."

Olaguer's article describing his study was recently published in the July 18th edition of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. It's the first independent study to examine specific North Texas ozone impacts from the gas industry.

Environmental groups say air pollution from natural gas sources is already making it impossible for DFW to meet even the obsolete 15-year old standard of 85 ppb. So far in 2012, five monitors have violated that level of smog despite a state plan that Austin guaranteed would reduce ozone concentrations in DFW to record lows this year. Counting 2012's failure, DFW has been in continual violation of the Clean Air Act for its smog pollution since 1991.

"This study is proof we need a regional strategy of self-defense to reduce air pollution from the gas industry," said Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck, whose group has been leading the fight to reduce smog-forming pollution from gas sources for two years now. "TCEQ and EPA are not doing enough to rein-in these facilities. Despite their official plans, our air is getting dirtier, not cleaner because gas pollution is still under-regulated. It's time for us to do more at the local level."

Schermbeck suggested the study could make a difference in the upcoming city council vote on a new Dallas gas drilling ordinance.

"Dallas has a chance to react positively to this new evidence by adopting the nation's first policy aimed at mitigating the tons of new pollution caused by gas mining in its new drilling ordinance. That would be a very large step forward in advancing regional clean air goals."

A city-wide coalition of neighborhood, homeowners, and environmental groups has been urging the Dallas city council to require gas operators to reduce as much air pollution as they release through funding of anti-pollution measures across the city. The Houston Center study gives them a lot of fresh arguments.

According to it, "…oil and gas activities can have significant near-source impacts on ambient ozone, through either regular emissions or flares and other emission events associated with process upsets,and perhaps also maintenance, startup, and shutdown of oil and gas facilities."

In fact, just routine emissions from a single gas compressor station or large flare can raise ozone levels by 3 parts per billion as far as five miles downwind, and sometimes by 10 ppb or more as far as 10 miles downwind.

Those impacts rival the size of smog effects traced back to the Midlothian cement kilns or East Texas coal-fired power plants by previous studies.

As the study notes, "Given the possible impact of large single facilities, it is all the more conceivable that aggregations of oil and gas sites may act in concert so that they contribute several parts per billion to 8-hr ozone during actual exceedances."

This conclusion directly contradicts the stance of the Natural Gas industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, both of which deny that Barnett Shale gas emissions are large enough or located in areas that can influence DFW ozone levels.

But the Houston study is based in part on data collected by industry, as well as information from the city-sponsored "Fort Worth Study," and citizen-sponsored testing in the town of DISH in Denton County. It also uses a kind of computer modeling that allows for a more realistic understanding of how large releases from gas facilities can increase ozone pollution than the one the TCEQ uses.  It's the most sophisticated challenge yet to the state and industry's claim that gas emissions do not constitute a large threat to DFW air quality.

"This is reality-based science, not the ideologically-influenced happy talk that's coming out of TCEQ these days," said Schermbeck. "Local governments in North Texas, especially those that are traditional allies of clean air, need to pay close attention and act on it."

The report is available for downloading here.

“Drilling in Dallas” Community Meeting: Northwest Dallas on Thursday Night

Dallas Residents at Risk’s road show on fracking in Dallas continues its tour with a stop at 7pm Thursday night, May 3rd, at the North Hills Prep School at 606 E Royal (near L.B. Houston Golf Course and the now famous drilling pad-in-a-park endorsed by none other than the President of the Dallas Parks and Rec Board). If you’ve seen the map of gas drilling leases on city owned land, you know that Northwest Dallas is a hotspot of activity. Along with West Dallas and Mountain Creek, it’s one of the most densely leased areas of the city. Come see a basic explanation for why the activity is hazardous to neighborhoods, talk to some of the good guys who were on the City’s gas drilling task force and find out what’s being done to write a better gas drilling ordinance. Information is power. Don’t be powerless.