Good things come in threes. Lance Irwin, Erick Orsak, and Tamera Bounds proved that again on Wednesday night when they led the Mansfield Gas Well Awareness contingent during the Mansfield City Council's "work session" on rewriting the city's gas drilling ordinance.
Combined, they projected just the right mix of competence, skepticism, and experience to combat the "Don't worry, be happy" approach of the Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality presentations that preceded them in the agenda.
(By the way did you know, that according to Austin, the average response time of a TCEQ inspector responding to a complaint was only 5 hours? Downwinders at Risk is willing to pay $100 to the charity of the inspectors' choice if anyone out there has ever gotten a response that quickly. After almost 30 years of dealing with state environmental agencies, we can't recall a single instance where it took less than a day for an inspector to show up, even when the situation was "urgent.")
By putting the three residents in the same horseshoe as industry, state agencies, and itself, the Council elevated the status of the resident's group beyond anything it had enjoyed in previous rounds of jousting over drilling. Whether that leads to the kinds of substantial changes to the city's drilling ordinance the group is pursuing remains to be seen.
What was obvious after the formal presentations ended and a more informal question and answer period followed was the large disparity in monitoring and self-regulation within the industry. There were at least 10 or 12 gas operators sitting at the table during the event. Conspicuous by its absence was Eagleridge, the source of many complaints in Mansfield and of course, the company that ignited the Denton fracking vote controversy.
But Eagleridge's Chief Operating Officer Mark Grawe was present, in the back of the room, trying to keep a low profile. It didn't work. Let's just say when you get called on the carpet by Stephen Lindsey, the Mansfield Council member whose day job is the "Government Relations and Community Affairs Director" for gas industry giant Quicksilver, you know you're not going to have a good night. As the evening wore on, it was clear Eagleridge was being portrayed as the poor, white trash cousin of the more established players like XTO and Chesapeake. The company lacked the remote sensors, automatic cut-offs, and other kinds of precautions that the rest of the industry reps liked to brag about. By the end of a rigorous cross-examination of Grawe by the residents' group, there was an unacknowledged consensus that perhaps the floor for regulating existing wells needed to be raised in Mansfield so that moving target known as "industry best practices" was updated applied to all.
More ambiguous was the response to the residents' request for a 1500-foot setback to replace the current 600 feet requirement – with a variance that can decreases that distance to 300 feet. Some industry representatives and council members want to frame the problem in terms of incidents and accidents that can be fixed with better equipment, rather than systematic changes that require separating people from heavy industrial activity, no matter how good the intentions are.
Also left hanging was how to better regulate polluting compressors. The city's lawyers, who've written protective ordinances for Dish and Southlake, was more circumscribed with their Mansfield employers. Cities can't regulate pipelines and mid-stream compressors for "safety standards," already addressed by the Railroad Commission they said. Left unsaid was that cities can and have regulated compressors for noise and "odors," otherwise known as toxic chemical exposures.
Bounds presented the city council with what she called a model ordinance that combined the best, most protective aspects of drilling regulations from DISH, Southlake, Dallas, Denton, Arlington and even Fort Worth. Saying these were legal requirements that hadn't been challenged by industry and so were available for adoption by the city, Bounds put the council on the spot by saying Mansfield needed to protect its citizens at least as much as these other municipalities and had no legal excuse for not doing so. Mayor David Cook took note of the work she'd done in compiling the new ordinance and said the city would perform its own side-by-side comparison and come back in January to continue the discussion.
Overall, the mood of the evening was cautious but positive. It was hard not to be impressed by the residents' knowledge and expertise, and everyone was civil in public. Afterwards, however, one of the first things Bounds heard was an industry operator telling her there was no way he was going to accept a 1500-foot setback. There is still plenty of work to be done. But it was a step in the right direction. And there are no big changes without incremental changes first.
It helped that the media were out in force, trying to identify the next fracking hotspot after Denton. There was a row of TV cameras and local and national print reporters showed up to take notes. Channel 8 had the best coverage of the evening, and if you can get past the paywall, here's the Star-Telegram's take.
As has been noted before, Mansfield is no Denton. It's not even Southlake or Flower Mound. It resembles Ft. Worth more than it does Dallas in terms of politics and attitudes toward the gas industry by the Powers That Be. It has more wells per capita than just about any place else in the Shale. But those are all reasons that make it worth fighting the good fight there. If residents can make their case effectively and change their situation in Mansfield, then there really is hope for everyplace else in the Barnett. Stay tuned.
Other than an occasional trip to Austin or DC to stop or support some piece of legislation, the action takes place in whatever community is putting up the most resistance. Front lines are fragmented and move around a lot. There's not a single cause that's united the energy from the multitude of ad hoc groups and individual "fracktivists" into a focused campaign for regional change. The closest thing to more encompassing battles have been the recent victories in Dallas and the current kickass campaign in Denton. These feel like old Cold War skirmishes – proxy clashes standing in for the on-going larger war over the Barnett Shale's soul.
But from now until the summer of 2015 there's a regional fracking fight waiting to be fought. It involves new bureaucracies and terms and mechanics, so it makes a lot of traditional fracking foes nervous. But the payoff is the potential to affect change throughout a 10-county area, including the heart of the urban Barnett Shale – Tarrant, Parker, Denton, Johnson, Wise and Ellis – as well as Dallas, Collin, Kaufman, and Rockwall.
What's the fight? It's over the new regional anti-smog plan, called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP. When a region hasn't met the federal standard for smog, also called ozone, it has to submit a plan to the EPA to explain how it's going to comply by the end of a three-year deadline. Despite at least three previous plans, DFW has never met the 1997 federal standard for smog. It's 85 ppb, or "parts per billion" concentration over 8 hours measured by approximately 20 stationary monitors scattered over the area. The closest we've come has been 86 ppb of ozone in 2009.
The new DFW plan is supposed to be designed to meet an even more ambitious target – no monitor higher than a three-year running average of 75 ppb of ambient air by 2018. We're at 87 ppb now. To reach the new goal, DFW would have to drop 12 parts per billion in ambient smog levels in four years -something that's never happened before.
Ozone/smog is created by a combination of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) from combustion sources and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from combustion sources and evaporation sources mixing in daylight. The more sun, the more ozone.
What are combustion sources of NOx and VOCs? Power plants and cement kilns. Every boiler and furnace and oven. Every internal combustion engine. Every diesel engine. Anything with a flame or a spark.
What are evaporation sources of VOCs? Gasoline pumps,tanks and paint shops.
An anti-smog plan is supposed to look at all the sources of smog-forming pollution in a region and find the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce it. Past plans have been responsible for putting more controls on coal-fired power plants and the Midlothian cement plants, as well as creating HOV lanes and tightening inspection standards for vehicles. But one large category of smog-forming emissions has been left largely untouched by past air plans – the gas and oil industry.
It's not because gas and oil sources aren't capable of contributing to DFW smog. Start with all the trucks that are needed for each well and the NOx and VOC emissions they produce. Then the drilling rig itself. Some cities now require electric motors, others still allow diesel and the NOx and VOCs they produce. Think about all the chemicals being dumped into a well and then flowing back out, many of them VOCs. Flares are sources of both NOx and VOCs. Storage tanks and pipelines are huge sources of escaped evaporated VOCs. Diesel compressors are huge sources of NOx. There isn't a part of the oil and gas fuel cycle that doesn't produce smog-forming pollution.
It's not because the oil and gas emissions are insignificant. In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality estimated that the VOCs being released by all the oil and gas facilities in the DFW area were greater than the volume of VOCs being released by all the cars and trucks on the road in the same region. In 2012, a Houston Area Research Council report estimated that a single flare or compressor could raise downwind ozone levels 3 to 5 parts per billion as far as five to ten miles away.
No, the oil and gas industry haven't been touched by these state anti-smog plans because the state doesn't want to impose new regional regulations on an industry. It's nothing personal. Austin doesn't want to impose new regulations on any industry. The last serious SIP was in 2007 – before the Barnett Shale boom and Rick Perry's presidential campaign. Since then, it's been one excuse after another from TCEQ about why no new controls are necessary – even though DFW air quality progress has stopped and we're still in violation of a 20-year old smog standard.
It's also true that the oil and gas industry hasn't been touched by an air plan because no one's made them. No DFW anti-smog plan has been the focus of a fracking campaign like the recent Dallas Trinity East permits, or the Denton petition drive. There been no pressure on state government to respond to a regional demand for action.
But the new DFW air plan does offer gas activists a chance to get reforms outside of their own city limits. For example, it could be the goal to include mandatory electrification of compressors in this plan. It's been estimated that 60 % or more of the air pollution from the gas fuel cycle comes from compressors. Electrification doesn't solve all their air pollution problems but it takes a huge bite out of them because the compressors are no longer being run by locomotive size diesel engines. Electrification of new compressors and a phase-in to replace existing diesel engines could reduce not just smog pollution, but toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases by thousands of tons a year.
Even if Austin rejects such proposals, there's a part of every plan called the "Weight of Evidence" category that's more inclusive to voluntary measures. A recommendation for cities and counties to demand electrification of all compressors in the DFW region isn't as immediate as a state-sponsored mandate, but it's an official good housekeeping seal you can take to local city councils and pass one by one until it does become a de facto regional policy. This is exactly what happened with Downwinders' Green Cement procurement campaign from 2007-2011 aimed at getting rid of old wet cement kilns in Midlothian. A short recommendation to local governments about where to buy their cement in the 2007 SIP was turned into a model ordinance by Dallas and then passed by a dozen other entities, one by one, over the next two years. by the end of this year, there will be no wet kilns lift in Midlothian.
The same thing could happen with compressors in this new plan, or green completions, or tanks, or pipelines in this new DFW air plan – if activists are willing to invest the same amount of time and energy into a regional fight as they do in their own backyard battles.
You have a couple of chances in April to dip your toes into the SIP Process. This coming Sunday, April 6th, from 3 to 5 pm at the Texas Campaign for the Environment office in Dallas, State Rep Lon Burnam and Downwinders at Risk will be hosting a strategy meeting for folks who want to know more about how to take advantage of this new air plan. Central to this strategy is involving more gas activists to win a regional fight, so y'all come.
Then on April 17th, at 10 am at the North Central Council of Governments Headquarters in Arlington, there's a meeting of the SIP "technical committee" that will be hearing presentations from the state and others about DFW's smog problem. Don't let the "technical committee" name fool you. These are open to the public and anyone can attend. In fact, this is your chance to ask questions of the state and the experts.
And to make it more interesting, we think we've managed to convince the Powers That Be to include UNT graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi's presentation on Barnett Shale contributions to DFW ozone as part of the April 17th meeting. This was the study recently featured by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe in the Denton Record Chronicle:
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.
If this one fails, another new air plan will not be due until at least 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. This is our only chance until then to affect the gas industry over a wide area instead of just one permit or one city at a time. Let's try to make it count.
DFW Anti-Smog Plan Strategy Meeting
Sunday April 6th 2-5 pm
Texas Campaign for the Environment Offices –
3303 Lee Parkway #402 • Dallas, TX 75219 – across from Lee Park
Hosted by St. Rep. Lon Burnam and Downwinders at Risk
DFW Air Plan Committee Meeting – open to the public
10 am to 12 noon
Thursday April 17th
North Central Texas Council of Governments
616 Six Flags Drive, Arlington – across the street from the amusement park
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.