Jim Schutze at the Dallas Observer came across an interesting piece of video the other day. It was the deposition of former Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm in the on-going lawsuit between jilted gas driller Trinity East and the City.
In their cross-examination, lawyers for Trinity East are asking Suhm about a secret (at least to the Council and the public) 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties trading Special Use Permits for gas drilling and production sites the company wanted to access on City-owned flood plain and park land – despite prohibitions on drilling in those places at the time of the agreement – in return for $19 million in upfront leasing payments.
Trinity East's lawyers want Suhm to say the agreement "guaranteed" the permits, and when the Plan Commission subsequently voted to deny them, and the City Council lacked the super-majority to override that denial, the City, by way of its agent in this matter Mary Suhm, defaulted on the agreement.
City of Dallas lawyers want Suhm to say Trinity East executives knew the drilling sites were off-limits at the time they signed the memo and, despite paying the City of Dallas $19 million before they got their permits, the company knew it was not a sure thing. According to the City's lawyers, what Trinity got was precisely what Suhm promised in the agreement: her best efforts to maneuver the company's permits through City Hall bureaucracy.
The crux of this back and forth comes at about the 4:30 point of the five minute video when Trinity East's lawyer, on behalf of his client, asks, "What is it they get for their $19 million dollars?"
Suhm says Trinity East "got the right to apply" for SUP permits.
But those permits cost considerably less than $19 million. What was Trinity East really paying for with those leasing checks, and did they get their money's worth?
Allow us to defend Mary Suhm.
When Trinity East wrote those checks, Suhm was riding high as City Manager and her command over Council affairs was already legend, especially as she negotiated the city budget through very tight times. Trinity knew the signature of a mere elected official was not sufficient. Those come and go at City Hall with hardly anyone noticing. It wanted the boss's John Hancock on the document and the boss was Mary Suhm.
Besides a perfectly legal and hefty bribe when the City needed it during the Great Recession, Trinity was investing in the power of Mary Suhm and her relationships with the Powers-That-Be. The company had every confidence as the ring master of the downtown circus, Suhm could make things happen that otherwise wouldn't happen. She was in control.
Trinity East wasn't wrong – in 2008. Had they pursued their permit requests in the next one to three years, there's every likelihood Trinity East would have received them.
But the company waited until 2011.
What had happened in those intervening three years?
There was a drilling backlash beginning to reach full volume in the Barnett Shale, aided by a new national awareness of fracking as it spread to other parts of the country. Josh Fox's "Gasland" came out in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Burning tap water replaced a folksy Tommy Lee Jones as the face of gas drilling in North Texas. Citizen groups were sprouting in every city with drilling fighting for larger buffer zones and more pollution controls. There were stories in the media all the time. Because no health or environmental studies had been done on urban fracking, all kinds of new ones were launched or just being reported on for the first time.
In light of the new controversy, Councilwoman Angela Hunt helped drive the City to convene a gas drilling task force, giving residents a chance to organize around the issue before Trinity East even applied for their permits. Every concern – air, water, even earthquakes – that would later become ammunition for opponents showed up in this task force process first.
Scott Griggs ran for Dallas City Council from one of the districts targeted by new gas drilling permits and won on an anti-drilling platform against an incumbent. He joined Hunt as a fierce critic of Dallas urban drilling. Neighborhoods were showing new muscle.
And so the stage was set for more of an uphill fight than what Trinity probably would have confronted in 2010.
Mary Suhm must have taken note of some of this and sighed when Trinity finally put in for its permits. Now they show-up?
Still, let the record show she put on a stiff upper lip and gave 110% to the cause of getting Dallas City Hall to approve Trinity East's permits. She contorted bureaucracies. She muscled appointees and council members alike. She and her staff worked overtime to try to subvert every move of the growing opposition to Trinity East's permits. When the company lost, it wasn't because Mary Suhm didn't pull out all the stops, but despite the fact she did.
Now, we're pretty sure this is a defense the City of Dallas lawyers don't want to use, but we offer it up here in case they need to break the glass and begin building firebreaks in court to keep from paying back the $19 million.
These are only the most egregious examples residents know about.
2011 Gas Drilling Task Force
In retrospect, it's easy to see Suhm's manipulation behind the last-minute Task Force endorsements of park and flood plain drilling. And when we say last-minute, we mean it.
Task Force members had already voted to keep the prohibition against drilling in these areas at a previous business meeting. The last meeting of the Task Force was supposed to be a pro forma affair that would ratify all previous recommendations and send them along to Council. Task Force member attendance was therefore down. This is when Task Force Chairwoman and former city council member Lois Finkelman chose to spring new votes on these two issues – and these two issues only – and won a reversal on each. Not only of the Task Force positions – but of current city policy, which of course didn't allow drilling in either area then.
Many excuses were used to justify this re-examination and re-vote that day, but none of them were the truth. Finkelman and staff were doing Suhm's bidding, and she was looking out for Trinity East. While it's not clear if Finkelman knew about Suhm's secret agreement, you can be sure Suhm, or someone on her behalf, made it clear to Finkelman it was VERY important to get these exemptions. Finkelman had been a friend to the clean air movement and other environmental causes during her tenure on the Council in the 1990's, but caved because of her relationship with Suhm, a belief she was helping the City out of a jam, or some other reason. At the end of the day, she weakened proposed city policy in accordance with what Trinity East wanted.
This is certainly something Trinity East got for its $19 million.
2012 Xmas Plan Commission Hearing on Trinity East Permits
Scheduled on December 20th, 2012, this was the first time gas drilling permits had been voted on for Dallas in three years, or pre-national outrage. It occurred before the Task Force recommendations had been considered and adopted into policy. In other words, after a call to reform its outdated drilling ordinance, and after a special Task Force had already been convened and issued its recommendations, Dallas was now about to grant three new permits, including one for a compressor station and refinery, under the old ordinance it was trying to replace. What was the rush? Why not wait and approve new permits until after the Task Force recommendations are written into a new ordinance? Because that would cause further public debate. More debate would highlight the problems of drilling in sensitive areas like park land and flood plains – still off limits in Dallas at the time.
In a transparent attempt to limit public awareness and participation even more, the City decided to hold this important hearing only five days before Christmas. Again, in retrospect, this has Mary Suhm's fingerprints all over it. And it almost worked. But just enough citizens showed up, representing enough well known groups and neighborhood organizations, and citing just enough new facts that had changed the situation since 2008 to win the climatic vote, 7 to 5 at 7:30 pm that evening. It was uncertain which way the decision would go right up until the very end.
Showing-up expecting to lose, instead citizens were elated. Overturning the denial would take a super majority of 12 votes on the Council – something that even then seemed unlikely. Citizens thought they had won. Mary Suhm had tried her best to rig the system, but the rigging failed. She tried again.
January- February 2013 Plan Commission "Reconsideration Vote" on Previous Permit Denial
Because she'd lost the December Plan Commission vote and knew she might not be able to get the 12 votes on the Council to overturn, Suhm had to do something creative. Viola! The Plan Commission would have a vote to "reconsider" their denial of Trinity East's permits only 21 days earlier. Nobody could remember the last time the Plan Commission even took such a vote. It was unprecedented. It was also Mary Suhm's handiwork.
That do-over decision came at a "special meeting" of the Plan Commission on January 10th, with a 6 to 5 vote to indeed take another vote on Trinity East's permits. This outcome, done under heavy police presence and with no public participation allowed, spurred one of the most iconic moments at Dallas City Hall in recent years – a 3 to five minute spontaneous standing crowd chant of "Shame."
You can see the speed at which Suhm is moving behind the scenes to engineer a better outcome after her unexpected defeat before Christmas. She's doing exactly what she promised Trinity East she would do. She's working the levers. Making things happen that would never otherwise happen. But now, it's costing her more to do so. The contortions of the system necessary to get the permits through are getting more twisted and harder to pull off gracefully. She's gone from talks with friends behind closed doors to forcing awkward "do-over" votes. It was obvious to the public there was something special about these Trinity East permits. Company officials had been dropping hints about some sort of an agreement with the City. Mayor Rawlings said permitting these sites "were a done deal" – although he didn't say why. It was getting messy.
Finally, on February 7th, the day the Plan Commission had scheduled the "do-over" vote, the Dallas Observer broke the story on the Suhm-Trinity East agreement. It was now clear what was driving the favoritism behind the treatment of the Trinity East permits by City Hall – going all the way back to the last-minute reversal of the Task Force, to the Christmas time hearing, to the pending "reconsider vote."
The timing could not have been worse for Suhm. We'll never know what the vote to reconsider might have been were there no headlines pointing to a City Hall cover-up. She may have thought she had the votes to keep the Trinity East permits alive. But with the story breaking that very day, the spotlight was too bright on the Plan Commission to take a new vote. Citizens won a reprieve and eventually a victory as the Commission requested the City Council deal with changing the current prohibitions against parkland and floodplain drilling before asking them to violate current ordinances again. That never happened. Instead, the three Trinity East permits were again denied by the Plan Commission in March 2013, albeit by razor-thin 8 to 7 and 9 to 6 margins.
And that was that. Suhm was gone in four months. Officially it wasn't because of the cover-up of the Trinity East agreement, but of course everyone knew it was because the whole thing was headed to court one way or the other.
Although the Mayor tried to rally 12 votes on the Council to overturn, he couldn't do it. The prospect of the kind of rolicking citizen protests keeping the Plan Commission on the 6 o'clock news showing up at a Council Meetings could not have helped his cause at this point.
Urban fracking opponent Philip Kingston had replaced Hunt on the Council, Griggs was still there, and they were joined by enough other council members (Sandy Greyson, Monica Alonzo, Carolyn Davis, and Adam Medrano) to insure the Plan Commission vote would prevail.
At the end of the day, Trinity East walked away empty-handed. but make no mistake about it. Mary Suhm did all she could to subvert the system for Trinity East.
Had the Dallas Observer not revealed the secret agreement, she might have even won the day for the company and still be City Manager. Was it $19 million worth of subversion? At today's inflated rates, who knows? But other than funding a small army and declaring herself dictator of the Drilling Republic of Dallas, she did all she could.
If you're Trinity East you can complain about the outcome, but you can't complain about her effort. There were too many variables out of her control for once. Not the least of which was a vigorous, rowdy, neighborhood-based movement against urban fracking in Dallas that was taking the fight to the public square…and winning. Sometimes, even the most powerful City Manager is on the wrong side of history.
DFW has a smog problem. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it's still at unsafe and illegal levels. And for the last four or five years, the air quality progress that should have been made has been stymied. Despite almost all large sources of smog-producing pollution being reduced in volume, our running average for ozone is actually a part per billion higher than it was in 2009.
Many local activists believe this lack of progress is due to the huge volumes of smog-producing air pollution being generated by the thousands of individual natural gas sites throughout the DFW region itself, as well as upwind gas and oil plays. In 2012, a Houston-based think tank released a report showing how a single gas flare or compressor could significantly impact downwind smog levels for up to 5 mile or more. Industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say no, gas sources are not significant contributors to DFW smog. In fact, during this current round of planning, the state has gone out of its way to downplay the impact of gas pollution, including rolling back previous emission inventories and inventing new ways to estimates emissions from large facilities like compressor stations.
Into this debate steps a UNT graduate student offering a simple and eloquent scientific analysis that uses the state's own data on smog to indict the gas industry for its chronic persistence in DFW – especially in the western part of he Metromess, where Barnett Shale production is concentrated.
On Monday night Denton Record-Chronicle reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe gave a summary of a presentation on local air quality she'd sat through that day at UNT:
"Graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi, working with his advisor, Dr. Kuruvilla John, downloaded the ozone air monitoring data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality back to 1997, a total of more than 6.5 million data points, he said, and has been studying it for the past four months.
Ahmadi wanted to explore a basic question underlying a graphic frequently distributed by the TCEQ that shows gas wells going up in DFW as ozone goes down, which suggests in a not-very-scientific-at-all way, that the increasing number of gas wells is having no effect on the ozone.
Ahmadi adjusted for meteorological conditions to determine how much ozone DFW people are making and where. Such adjustments have been explored by others to understand better the parts of ozone-making we can control, because we can’t control the weather. He used an advanced statistical method on the data, called the Kolmogorov-Zurbenko filter, to separate the effects of atmospheric parameters from human activities.
According to the results, the air monitoring sites surrounded by oil and gas production activities, generally on the west side of DFW, show worse long-term trends in ozone reduction than those located farther from wells on the east side of DFW.
His spatial analysis of the data showed that ozone distribution has been disproportionally changed and appears linked to production activities, perhaps an explanation why residents on the western side of DFW are seeing more locally produced ozone, particularly since 2008.
Ahmadi's results are not definitive, and the paper he's writing is still a work-in-progress. But he's asking the right questions, and challenging the right unproven assumptions. He's at least put forth an hypothesis and is trying to prove or disprove it. He's using science. TCEQ's approach is all faith-based.
Anything that takes the focus off vehicle pollution is anathema to Austin and many local officials who want to pretend that industrial sources of air pollution don't impact the DFW region enough to make a difference so they don't have to regulate them. If there's a guiding principle to TCEQ's approach to this new clean air plan, due in July 2015, it's to avoid any excuse for new regulations while Rick Perry is running for President. The agency isn't interested in doing any kind of science that might challenge that perspective – no matter how persuasive. After all, you're talking about a group that doesn't believe smog is bad for you. TCEQ doesn't want to know the truth. It can't handle the truth. It's got an ideology and it's stickin' to it.
So it's up to young lowly graduate students from state universities armed only with a healthy sense of scientific curiosity to step up and start suggesting that the Emperor's computer model has no clothes, and offering up alternative scenarios to explain why DFW air quality is stuck in neutral. It turns out, just doing straight-up classroom science is enough to threaten the fragile House of Computer Cards with which the state's air plan is being built.
Perhaps equally as ominous for the success fo any new clean air plan is Ahmadi's discovery that ozone levels in DFW have been during the winter time, or "off-ozone-season." There could be a new normal, higher background level of smog affecting public health almost year round.
Mahdi Ahmadi's study is just one of the many that need to be done to construct an honest clean air plan for DFW, but it shows you what a curious mind and some computing power can do. Citizens can't trust the state to do the basic science necessary as long as the current cast of characters is running the show in Austin. EPA won't step in and stop the farce as long as TCEQ can make things work out on paper. If the scientific method is going to get used to build a better DFW clean air plan, it's going to have to be citizens who apply it.
Any doubt that Dallas City Hall is more interested in protecting the Trinity East gas leases than Dallas residents as it writes a new gas drilling ordinance was surely removed yesterday when City Attorney Tammy Palomino flatly lied and told City Plan Commission members that they had not decided on a 1500-foot setback, or buffer zone, between homes and other "protected uses," even though they had done precisely that at their June 20th meeting.
Employing the Orwellian language of a Soviet history writer, Palomino simply choose to ignore the results of a decision she didn't like and pretend the vote never happened. She argued that there was "no consensus" on the CPC for a 1500-foot setback – even though that very word was used to describe the results of June 20th meeting by CPC members themselves, as well as the media.
Instead, she handed out an official "summary" of CPC drilling recommendations to-date that not only only didn't include ANY mention of the 1500-foot setback decision, but instead listed a 1000-foot setback limit that had specifically been rejected by the Commission!
That missing footage is critical. 1000-foot setbacks, with a variance (or exception) up to 500-feet, were recommended by the city's gas drilling task force, but we now know those recommendations were tailored to fit the circumstances of the Trinity East lease sites along the Trinity River in northwest Dallas. That is, with a variance that could put wells 500 feet from homes, the Trinity East sites could be approved. With the CPC's 1500 foot-setback, there's only a variance to 1000 feet. That makes it impossible for Trinity East to set up shop where they want. And that's why Palomino deliberately, but unethically, left the 1500 setback out of her "summary."
The problem for Palomino in trying to pull this kind of disappearing act is that there were way too many witnesses to the original vote, including reporters. According to KERA's account "One of the first changes that grabbed consensus of the Plan Commission was an increase to the buffer zone or setback between gas wells and homes, businesses, schools, and recreational areas. Plan Commissioners want 1500 feet, not the 1,000 recommended by the task force." Channel 4 reported the same thing. There's also the fact that the city archives audio tapes of every CPC meeting, and citizens have have begun to videotape the meetings to catch this kind of bullying by staff.
What all of this will show is that on June 20th CPC member Paul Ridley took great pains to clarify that the CPC had indeed reached a consensus that they wanted a 1500 foot setback – considered the most protective setback currently used by any North Texas city. He even asked the question, "Do we have consensus on this?" and heads all nodded and not one verbal objection can be heard – other than from Tammy Palomino – who is stuttering that the city attorneys are going to have to make sure they can do this (no explanation of why Dallas can't). There's no question about what happened.
Which is why even the most cynical observers were shocked at the clumsy effort by Palomino to erase the decision from history by way of her "summary." It's like the City can't pass up an opportunity to create an ethical crisis whenever it deals with the Trinity East leases.
All the video and audio tape is being assembled into a nice neat package for the public and media. The case against Tammy Palomino will be devastating. As a result of her premeditated misrepresentations, Palomino should resign, or at the very least be re-assigned away from work on the new gas ordinance. She's representing Trinity East in these proceedings, not the citizens of Dallas.
Yesterday's episode was but the most extreme example of the kind of bullying and steamrolling that staff is employing against the CPC to end up with an ordinance that is Trinity East-friendly. As they have for the past three years or so, they're contorting the system to make it fit Trinity East's permits.
Besides the setbacks issue, staff really wants the CPC to OK gas drilling in parks, and a majority of CPC members today were willing to say out loud they supported that goal. That's right – after 7 months of crowds filling city hall to protest drilling in parks, Official Dallas is still moving toward approval of that idea. It's based on the idea of "unused" park land – a concept that has never been defined by the city or anyone else.
Trying to further this goal, staff actually came to Thursday's meeting with a US Parks Department definition of "active" and "passive" park land with the idea that Dallas could adopt something similar and allow drilling on the "passive" acreage. According to the list, "passive" park land is defined as land used for hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping, among others activities. Sounds pretty "active" doesn't it? Despite their propensity to allow park drilling it struck the CPC the same way and they firmly rejected staff's approach. Still, just like the 1500 foot setback issue, staff won't be satisfied until they get Trinity East what it wants.
Which brings us to a hard truth that the media and the public need to absorb. As bad and blatant as it is, Tammy Palomino's unethical behavior is only a symptom of a much larger rotten problem with this entire gas drilling ordinance process that has been present from before the task force was created right up until now. It's impossible for staff to both be advocates for the Trinity East leases in the writing of a new gas ordinance and give objective counsel to the CPC and Council on how to write the most protective ordinance. They cannot serve two masters.
Palomino and others have been told they need to find a way to make sure Trinity East gets what it wants in this new gas drilling ordinance. That makes city staff just another lobbying arm of Trinity East, not honest brokers trying to produce the best and most protective policy for Dallas residents. Every piece of advice they give is meant to further the leases, not the public good.
Because of this fact, an independent counsel needs to be brought in for the purpose of helping draft this new gas drilling ordinance. Policymakers need to have the best information, the most objective information, if they're going to make good policy. They're not getting it from city staff when it comes to drilling.
It's time to quit pretending this isn't a big problem. When city attorneys start trying to erase public policy decisions because they conflict with a private interest they're serving, the system is no longer working. It's corrupt and must be replaced before that corruption is allowed to spread.
Stay tuned. You're going to be hearing a lot more about this.
Scheduling Note: Although the CPC released a schedule for its work on the drilling ordinance only last week, including three public hearings, things may be changing quickly with additional workshop times and different dates and times for hearings. There was a lot of talk about schedule changes on Thursday, but nothing was decided. Right now the first opportunity for you to express outrage at this latest development is a public hearing slated for August 15th, 4 to 6 pm, at City Hall but stay tuned to make sure.
Most of you probably are already aware that Josh Fox's follow-up to "Gasland" will be premiering on HBO Monday night. What you might not know about "Gasland II" is that it heavily features North Texas. Former DISH Mayor Calvin Tillman, Earthworks organizer Sharon Wilson, and Parker County resident Steve Lipsky are all in there, and Lipsky's fight for his well water is a major story thread.
Like it or not, the Barnett Shale is where folks from the rest of the country and the rest of the world come to see what kind of damage fracking can leave in its wake.
Hard to believe it's been 3 years since Downwinders hosted the theatrical premiere of the original in October of 2010 with Fox showing up for a panel discussion that also featured former city councilwoman Angela Hunt afterwards at the Angelica. It was the first citywide show of opposition to gas drilling in Dallas and a full year before the packed Texas Theater showing where Mayor Mike Rawlings made his now famous pledge "to never put neighborhoods at Risk over money." But that was all so pre-secret deal ago.
This summer the City Plan Commission is meeting every two weeks to draft a new gas drilling ordinance for Dallas. By late August or early September, they're expected to be finished and have said they will then hold public hearings on the draft they'll submit to the City Council for a vote. Plans are under way to try and bring Josh Fox to Dallas for a theatrical premiere of his sequel as these public hearings kick-off. Nobody's sure if this can happen with Josh himself – he's become a genuine celeb since the first time around – but we're working on producing our own "sequel" to that very successful first showing. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, you can send a quick e-mail to the Plan Commission members telling them what you'd like to see in a new gas drilling ordinance for Dallas by clicking here.
With the election of Philp Kingston and Rick Callihan, the new edition of the Dallas City Council is complete. The good news is that the last six months of hand-to-hand civil combat over the Trinity East gas permits seems to have paid-off in expanding the number of gas drilling opponents to at least six members
The bad news is that hard-core supporters still retain seven seats, with two new members hard to read given their campaign answers.
Mayor Mike Rawlings
Rick Callihan (new)
Philip Kingston (new)
Adam Medrano (new)
Lee Kleinman (new)
Kleinman's DMN questionnaire answer: "I will not take a position at this time because the issue is far to complex to evaluate in the midst of a campaign. The Task force spent 9 months on this issue and I personally know and respect a number of its members. The Council has yet to adopt its recommendations and it will take a much deeper study of the facts before I can take a formal position."
DMN campaign debate coverage: "(He didn't take) firm positions on hydraulic fracturing in Dallas, but said drilling probably shouldn’t occur around residential areas or kids’ soccer fields."
Jennifer Stabach-Gates (new)
Stabach-Gates' Dallas Real Estae News questionnaire answer: "I am opposed to fracking in neighborhoods or near public spaces. There are limited areas in Dallas where fracking would be considered, and these should be addressed on a case by case basis. But as a rule, I will always place a higher priority on protecting neighborhoods and the health of our residents."
Hard to tell when the first vote to test these categories will occur. Officially, the council has yet to take a vote on the Trinity East permits. But rumor has it that the City Plan Commission will be getting briefed by Mary Suhm's legal staff on what a new drilling ordinance should look like this coming Thursday at City Hall, so maybe we won't have to wait that long to see how much the same or different this council is from the last when it comes to the most important environmental fight in Dallas in the last 20 years.
Events in Turkey remind us there's a direct connection between authoritarianism and pollution. Polluters depend on closed doors, opaque operations and a heavy hand – the same conditions that allow authoritarian governments to thrive. Because of ownership connections, supply contracts and employment pools, there's often no delineation between where government ends and industry begins – witness the 21st Century "Red Army Inc." in China, or the state-approved Russian Oligarchies.
Corruption is institutionalized in such places. Pollution is just another form of state-sponsored crime that's overlooked by everyone that matters. With one large exception. When the crime is padding payrolls or skimming profits, it's not worth the trouble of ordinary citizens to speak out. It's a matter between the Powerful. But when the result of the crime is making your kids sick, or ruining your farm stock and land, then you have less to lose by fighting back.
And in a country run by an authoritarian government, what does fighting back mean? Well, it doesn't mean filing a complaint or going to court because those options are not allowed, or at least not allowed to be successful. Your options are very limited. That's why Chinese parents resort to kidnapping factory managers, and arson these days to protest new petrochemical plants. And it's one of the reasons why the events in Turkey took on a life of their own after being sparked by the brave stand of three people to save a park in Istanbul in the middle of the night.
One of the most serious misdiagnosis of the right is it's derision of everything "green" as the silly aspirations of white, middle-class youngsters with too-much-time-on-their-hands. Environmental health is a fundamental "freedom" issue. Invasion of your lungs and intestines with adverse foreign substances is the ultimate eminent domain issue. It's trespassing. Parents want to protect their kids from poisons. People want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. They want to look at things besides offices buildings and feel something besides concrete beneath their feet. To be Free, to Enjoy Freedom, human beings have to experience Free places – Smog Free, Pollution-Free, Sprawl-Free. This was the Libertarian-influenced force behind early American conservation and park-building – as championed by stout GOPer Teddy Roosevelt.
Oddly enough, it turns out that yearning isn't confined to Young White People in America, or even America itself. It seems to be a universal yearning that people in every continent have been increasingly expressing. To fight for environmental justice in Authoritarian-run countries is to be a true "Freedom Fighter." But most of the Right is deaf to this. The very constituencies you'd think it'd be championing – Chinese peasants getting shat on by their communist-in-name-only state-industrial complex – get ignored.
Now, granted Texas isn't a Turkey or a China, but you don't have to live in another country to see authoritarianism seeping into, and affecting, the politics of pollution. Exhibit A: the secret agreement between out-going Dallas city Manager Mary Suhm and Trinity East that was kept from the public for five years, even as it drove the city's agenda on gas drilling. That's a pretty clear example of the state and industry teaming up to become a single entity that had its own separate agenda from the public one either presented, as well as how the system is perverted to fit the deal instead of the public good.
To a lesser extent, severely restricting public comments at public meetings and the over-reacting to obnoxious hecklers is also part of this same strain. The less transparency for the deal makers, the better. The heavier the hand in quelling dissent, the better.
That's why fights over pollution are almost always fights over democracy too.
This happened because of two things: 1) Residents elected anti-drilling candidates outright (Griggs and Medrano, with a run-off for Kingston), and 2) a couple of hard core supporters of the Mayor's and Mary Sumh's drilling plans were replaced by candidates who are more conditional in their support for how and where to drill than their predecessors (Kleinman replaces Koop, Griggs replaces Jasso).
Both of those factors can be traced directly back to all the constructive hell-raising citizens have been doing over the past two years or more. Every single candidate questionnaire had a query about gas drilling in Dallas. It came up at debates and forum and interviews. You made it an issue that even business-backed candidates had to address in a citizen-friendly way. You changed to tone, the content of the debate. You did that.
Our citizens' slate won two out of five races outright, with a chance to make it three out of five if Kingston wins the June 15th run-off. Unfortunately, Claudia Meyer lost her race to Vonciel Hill despite a lot of hard work and grassroots effort. And drilling opponent Leland Burk lost to Jennifer Staubach-Gates.
The June 15th run-off is now very important indeed, because it could give us up to 6 votes on the Dallas City Council against irresponsible urban drilling, with a possible 2-3 more swing votes coming over to our side depending on the permit and the site. You need 8 votes out of 15 to win. We're very close.
Besides the Kingston run-off with industry-backed Bobby Abtahi, there's also the District 5 run-off pitting Jesse Diaz against Rick Callahan – both very conditional drilling supporters who appear to be against park drilling.
So here's the Dallas Drilling scorecard as of today:
Opponents of Drilling
June 15th run-off:
Unconditional Supporters of Drilling:
June 15th run-off:
Conditional Supporters – based on public statements
June 15th run-off: Diaz or Callahan
Short-term, these election results look like they doom the zombie Trinity East permits. We only need four Council votes or more to uphold the City Plan Commission denial of those permits. We have at least five now, with the chance for 6 or more after June 15th. So the Mayor's plan to hold off on voting on these permits until after the election in hopes of finding more supporters has failed.
This is no small accomplishment. Last November, when the Mayor held a press conference and announced that he was breaking the informal moratorium that was holding back all permit requests until a new ordinance was written and pushing the Trinity East permits through for approval, it indeed looked like a "done deal." And as recently as April, some Dallas City Council members were telling their peers in Irving not to fret, because, despite the Plan Commission vote, the Trinity East permits were still a "done deal."
Well, folks that deal is done now. Well done. As in, put a fork in it. Congratulations. The Mayor tried to pull a fast one and he didn't succeed because of the fierce resistance he got from his own residents. We should know soon when the Trinity East vote will be, and when it's scheduled, we'll need you at City Hall once again to show the new city council that fierce resistance in person. Maybe that will make an impact on their future voting.
Longer term, the new Council will have more members who are opposed to all drilling in Dallas, not just in parks and flood plains, but they don't yet constitute a majority. They're at direct odds with the six Council incumbents who are avid supporters of drilling everywhere and anywhere. Somewhere in the middle – at least until the first vote or so – will be the three freshman members who are possible swing votes.
Their views will be increasingly important if one or both things begin to happen – there is movement to actually write a new gas drilling ordinance after the Trinity East permit denials are upheld, and/or Luminant follows through on its plans to drill and build a compressor station at North Lake and submits permit applications that will be at the center of yet another round of public controversy.
For now, let's concentrate on the June 15th run-off and getting a 6th anti-drilling vote on the Dallas City Council. Its not 8 yet, but it's pretty darn close and construction is still in progress.
Last Thursday's razor thin vote by the City Plan Commission to deny the Trinity East gas permits – for a second time – was proof that Dallas environmentalists can marshal the political muscle it takes to beat City Hall on a critical issue of public policy, even when the system is scandalously rigged against us. Can anyone else remember the last time that happened? This is one of those turning points in the maturity of the city's green movement and the city itself.
By showing up in record numbers for the third meeting in as many months, you won the latest round in "one of the biggest zoning fights Dallas has ever seen" according to the Dallas Morning News. Plan Commission members remarked they had never seen the kind of crowds that turned out for the gas permit fight. Congratulations and thank you very much.
We know it's hard for you to take off work or home responsibilities and come down to City Hall for the day. But this was time well spent. By recommending to deny the permits, the Plan Commission forwards them to the entire City Council for a final vote that by rule will require a "super majority" of 12 council members to overturn. By our math, there is currently no such super majority in favor of the permits, although the margin is whisker close again. So where does that leave us? How do we finally kill the Dallas zombie gas permits?
A FINAL COUNCIL VOTE – BUT WHICH COUNCIL?
The very first motion made at last Thursday's City Plan Commission meeting was by permit supporters and it called for postponing a vote until June – after a new city council is seated. That should be your first clue. Trinity East supporters must believe they stand a chance of electing a more pro-drilling city council than the one now seated.
Angela Hunt, Sandy Greyson, and Scott Griggs are steadfast opponents of the permits. Carolyn Davis is believed to be against them. Those are the four votes that can uphold the CPC denial of the permits and deny the supporters their 12- member super majority to overturn.
But it takes five council members to bring an item to the agenda for a vote. And there is no deadline for action by the Council – the CPC decision could lay out there for an indefinite amount of time with no follow-up by Council necessary. If supporters don't think they have at least 12 votes now, they can wait until they think they do…in June.
Rumor has it that Hunt, Greyson and Griggs are trying to find a fourth and fifth council member to help bring the Trinity East permits up for a vote now – in April or May – and uphold the CPC denial. We support this strategy, and have an easy way for you to help make it happen. Our "Featured Citizen Action" has a new and direct message to all 15 members of the Dallas City Council: VOTE NOW AND VOTE NO. As always, you can add your own message as well. Be the first one on your block to send yours.
Look again at that list of the four council members who most observers believe make up the current firewall of opposition to the Trinity East permits.
Angela Hunt is term-limited. She won't be there in June. Her hand-picked successor is Phillip Kingston, a solidly anti-Trinity East permit candidate who faces a very well-funded pro-permit candidate. Environmentalists are backing Kingston, but he's not a shoo-in.
Scott Griggs is being forced to run against fellow incumbent Delia Jasso for a new North Oak Cliff district, which is also shaping up to be a tight race. If their attitudes regarding the revelation of City Manager Mary Suhm's secret agreement with Trinity East are any indication, Jasso is a permit supporter.
If both anti-permit candidates lose, and the rest of the current council remains the same, chances are very good the permits would have their super majority and breeze through in June. If you want these gas permits denied, you need to work and vote for Kingston and Griggs.
That's also why the Claudia Meyer vs Vonciel Hill race in District 3 in Southwest Dallas is also so important. It's the only city council race that features an over-the-top supporter of the Trinity East permits running against a longtime grassroots opponent. For environmentalists, it's the same kind of proxy war over drilling in Oak Cliff that took place two years ago when pro-drilling Dave Neumann lost – only now its even more important that the good guys win. This race could provide the margin of victory needed to make sure the CPC denial is upheld.
THE NEW FRONT IN IRVING
One of the largest contingents to show up last week in Dallas were the Irving residents who are just now waking up to the fact that they live only a short distance downwind of all of the Trinity East sites. This is the residential piece of the opposition puzzle that was missing until recently – a built in constituency.
Want to see the kind of cross-examination that Trinity East should receive in Dallas, but never has? You have to tune into Irving City Hall TV, where the day before the CPC vote, Councilwoman Rose Cannaday got to ask company president Tom Blaton lots of interesting questions about its intent with regard to those Dallas wells it wants to drill so close to the Irving city limits. One thing we learned was that although the company is drilling straight down in Dallas, it's making a lateral turn to the Northwest that takes all the wells under Irving. Funny thing about that – Trinity East doesn't have a contract with Irving to take its gas yet. So the company appears to be gambling everything on pursuing three Dallas permits before it even secures the gas rights it needs to exploit them.
It's unclear if Irving alone could or will stop Trinity from being able to do what it wants in Dallas. But what's apparent is that this is now as big a political issue in Irving as it is in Big D, or bigger.
By successfully pushing back last week, Dallas environmentalists have upped the ante. Now you have to follow through. If you're not already volunteering in one of the local council races that could make a huge difference in a June Trinity East permit vote – please do so this week. The election is May 11th and early voting begins April 29th. This is where the front lines of the fight are right now.
And don't forget to send your new message to the current city council: VOTE NOW AND VOTE NO.
We're in Act 3. We can write the happy ending. We can paint the picture. But we have to show up.
Let's see, so far the Great Dallas Drilling Scandal™ includes illegal drilling sites, a secret agreement, secret wells….in Irving, citizen protests, allegations of Open Meetings violations, likely Open Records violations, a surprise refinery, comparisons to Christ, and at least one grassroots city council candidacy. Missing until now was it's very own SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Aimed at Public Participation).
Monday saw the announcement that lawyers for the company behind the three controversial Dallas gas permits had sent a nasty letter to one Zac Trahan of the Texas Environmental Campaign telling him to cease and desist in handing out flyers telling people that a casing failure at one of the company's wells in Irving could have harmed groundwater. Since it happened deep underground and there has been no public disclosure of post-failure testing, it's impossible to say whether it caused harm to groundwater or not. But that didn't keep Trinity East from wanting full exoneration. According to a letter from the law firm representing Trinity East,
"That statement is absolutely false. Trinity East's prior well did not contaminate any underground water aquifers. In fact, any casing failure on that well could not have caused or produced aquifer contamination because surface casing was set and cemented at required depths (per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rules) to protect all fresh water aquifers. TCE's actions are unlawful, and constitute, at a minimum, defamation under Texas law. There is no question that TCE fabricated this fiction and then disseminated it with the specific intent of interfering with Trinity East's rights under its lease with the City of Dallas."
That would be the previously undisclosed lease(s) with the City of Dallas over at the University of Dallas, in Irving (it's complicated) that have only recently come to light after citizen investigation and published reports in the Dallas Observer and Morning News.
The flyers in question were from Dallas Residents at Risk and only claimed that the casing failure may have contaminated groundwater. There's no way that Trinity East's lawyers could prove there was no contamination. We'll probably never know for sure. But the primary point of the letter is not to dispute the statement. It's to scare Zac, TCE and Dallas Residents at Risk into not saying stuff like this again, or they'll sue. Or at least talk a lot like they're going to sue. They'll really mean it. Sort of. Honest.
The tip-off about what this letter is really about is that it didn't come from the law firm representing Trinity East in the permitting process but from a firm (Kelly Hart and Hallman) that apparently makes targeting environmental groups a specialty. Only a short while ago, it actually sued TCE over a landfill expansion dispute. In this case however, Trinity East probably dreads actually taking Zac and Co. to court because then all documents about the (previously undisclosed) well could be reviewed by TCE and the public.
Although it's a sideshow to the on-going scandal over approving permits to do things that aren't legal, Trinity East's letter shows citizens hit a nerve by pulling back the curtain on the company's current operations. Representatives of Trinity East never fail to mention how many wells the company has drilled in the Barnett Shale, but as far as we can tell, nobody at Dallas City Hall has ever researched the company's environmental and safety track record. Once again, it was citizens performing the minimum due diligence that first came across the information on the existence of the Irving wells themselves, much less the casing failure.
Oh that. On February 7, 2013 Trinity East Energy's Tom Blanton told the City Plan Commission that "Trinity East Energy has never had a casing failure." Was he forgetting about the Irving well? Was he fudging a bit because it was done by the "Expro Energy" part of Trinity East? Or was he just not telling the truth? No matter, Dallas City Hall took the claim at face value and never checked. Why not? Maybe because they knew that doing so would reveal a long-standing prior relationship between the City and Trinity that included a well with a casing failure. Wow. That would be embarrassing.