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.
The bloody knuckle political fight over urban gas drilling in Dallas in 2013 is the fight local environmentalists owed Fort Worth in 2006. Our collective failure in Cowtown gave the gas industry a too-friendly template for every other DFW city that's come after Fort Worth's gas rush.
Wednesday that template got tossed. A clearly frustrated Trinity East lobbyist complained that the company wouldn't even have had to participate in a Council hearing like this one if the same permits were being sought in Fort Worth. Welcome to Big D.
We can't undo old wrongs, but we can start changing the pattern of behavior that keeps churning out new ones. Wednesday's vote by the Dallas City Council was, by far, the highest-profile rebuke of the gas industry in a region it thinks its owns lock, stock and barrel. As he Dallas Morning News put it, "the defeat could be the death knell for natural gas drilling in a city known around the world for its ties to the petroleum industry." Politically, we aren't in Fort Worth anymore.
So what else is new after yesterday? From micro to macro:
From just a basic civics perspective, it's hard not to be impressed with the job that residents did in mobilizing themselves into a persistent and contentious force for change. This wasn't just an environmental victory. It was a victory for grassroots organizing. Residents had to fight not only the gas industry, but Dallas City Hall staff and the Mayor, who were all doing their best to rig the process in Trinity East's favor. Moreover, they had to fight on multiple fronts at the same time, both within the regulatory process to deny the permits outright, and in the Spring's city council elections to make sure they had the votes once the permits got to the horseshoe on Marilla. And oh yeah, they've had to put together and lobby for the toughest regulations to be included in a new ordinance being written, also at the same time.
That said, the last nine months have seen the biggest show of green political muscle in the city's history. If you total up the numbers of people involved, throw in a scandalous secret memo that brings down a City Manager, add triumphs in half the council elections you enter, and pile on winning-over the local conservative daily newspaper, then there's just no comparison. The momentum carried into Wednesday's meeting when opponents got two more votes than the four that were needed to block the permits, for a total of six. That's a far cry from the two or three everyone was sure about when this started last winter. We've seen the Dallas environmental movement grow up right before our eyes into something nobody, including environmentalists, thought it was capable of being when this started.
The fruit of this new growth was on display at City Hall (Coverge from the DMN, KERA, CultureMap and the Observer). There's no precedent for the kind of coalition that turned-out, except maybe the anti-Trinity Tollroad coalition that almost upended the Citizens Council's plans for solar-powered water taxis and riverside freeways in the 1990's. There were West Dallas residents from La Bajada, Oak Cliff dwellers, North and East Dallas homeowners association presidents, Students, teachers, professionals, gas lease owners, environmentalists, neighborhood activists, an Irving city council member, young mothers, young grandmothers and everything in between. Reflecting this diversity was a Council coalition that included both Hispanic Council members, Adam Medrano and Monica Alonzo, African-American Carolyn Davis, newcomer Philip Kingston, and stalwarts Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs. If this alliance of interests holds together, it stands a very good chance of getting a strong new ordinance in the coming months.
And what about that new ordinance? With the old business of Trinity East now concluded, all attention is directed at Dallas writing and passing the most protective gas drilling ordinance in the Barnett Shale by the end of the year. The chances of that happening went up dramatically with Wednesday's vote.
One of the most unexpected results coming out of the confrontation was Mayor Rawlings' seemingly blunt declaration that he was four-square against urban drilling in Dallas. Saying the city could afford to be picky about the kind of development it seeks, he stated he didn't think gas drilling was a good match for Dallas and looked forward to passing a strong new ordinance. We'll see. Actions speak louder than words, and so far the Mayor's actions on this issue have all been in service to approving the Trinity East permits. With that fight resolved, can he be trusted to embrace a new philosophy? We'll be able to tell soon enough with a draft ordinance due to be delivered by the Plan Commission to the Council in late September. At any rate, his public confession on Wednesday is another sign of how far the Dallas movement has come. It's impossible to imagine Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price uttering the same words.
It also gives the new members of the City Council some cover to vote for tougher regulations as well. Rumor has it that Jennifer Staubach-Gates was agonizing over the Trinity East vote even as she entered the Council Chambers. She eventually voted with the Mayor but as an ex- school nurse who's dealt with asthmatic kids firsthand, she's concerned about air pollution and other public health consequences of fracking. The Mayor's coming out against drilling in Dallas may embolden her and others to get on the band wagon. Rawlings' statement also sets a high bar for the slew of Mayoral candidates coming up in the next election cycle.
Residents now must focus on the last two Plan Commission meetings and hearings that are deciding what kind of new gas drilling ordinance Dallas will write. And they represent very full plates of issues indeed:
On Thursday, September 12th, at 8:30 am the Commission will begin work on the topics of "Air Quality," "Water," "Pipelines" and "Compressor Stations" in their morning workshop. At 1:30 pm that same day they'll get around to holding another one of their unique (anti-public) public hearings at City Hall on those same subjects. It's vital that residents remain plugged into this process and show up to speak on these incredibly important issues.
Just as opponents all got behind the idea of 1,500 foot setbacks and made it a mantra, we no need to coalesce around three or four central and simple concepts for the 12th including: 1) Air Pollution Off-sets, 2) Special Zoning Districts for Compressors, and 3) much higher water rates for taking water permanently out of the hydrological cycle.
– Off-sets would require that gas operators estimate how much new greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution they'll emit into the air every year based on EPA numbers and their own self-reporting, and then off-set those increases in air pollution by paying for pre-approved air pollution control projects in Dallas that would reduce pollution. If you expect to release 5 tons of emissions from your gas operations, you will have to pay for reducing five tons of air pollution in the city by electrifying a car fleet, improving energy efficiency measures in homes and buildings, putting more bikes on the street and so forth. In this way, off-sets also act as a strong incentive to decrease emissions as much as possible at the sources themselves. The less you pollute i nthe first place, the less you have to pay to off-set that pollution.
Unlike every other heavy industry that does business in a smog "non-attainment" area such as DFW, the gas industry is exempt from having to do this at the federal level. So we want Dallas to be the first city in the nation to fix that loophole by requiring local off-sets. This would be a precedent-setting piece of policy-making that citizens could then take to other Barnett Shale cities and counties. A grassroots regional policy could grow out of the Dallas template – much like it did when Dallas passed the first "green cement" procurement policy in 2007. That campaign lead to the eventual closing of all seven old wet kilns in Midlothian and millions of pounds of air pollution permanently eliminated. It forced the cement industry to clean up. We want to do the same thing with the gas industry and offsets.
This new policy could be the beginning of a tool that we can use to significantly reduce gas industry air pollution, not only in DFW, but in smoggy metro areas throughout the U.S. that now also host gas drilling, like Denver, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.
– Compressor Stations are the big league polluters of the natural gas fuel cycle, running 24/7 365 days a year and emitting voluminous amounts of air pollution. Some compressor stations release more Volatile Organic Compounds than the Midlothian cement plants and they're huge greenhouse gas polluters. A recent study from the Houston Advanced Research Center found that a single flare or compressor could raise downwind smog levels by 3-5 parts per billion or more within five miles. Compressors should be required to get their own Special Zoning District with strict rules on sound, pollution and setbacks.
– Water is precious in NorthTexas and industries that take it permanently out of the hydrological cycle should pay more than those that don't. A lot more, because it means we have to go out and find that water anew. Likewise, during drought conditions, water should be for drinking, not fracking. It's critical we make the industry pay for the real costs of using so much of this absolutely necessary resource and then throwing it away for good down a hole.
On Thursday September 26th the Plan Commission will hold its final public hearing on the new gas ordinance. Then it will vote on a draft to send the City Council. Again, citizens need a good turnout for sending this document off, whether it has everything in it we want, or it's lacking in some important way. We need to be there.
We are only these two September hearings away from showing up at the Dallas City Council with the most protective gas drilling ordinance in the Barnett Shale and providing the region and the country a new alternative for the obsolete Fort Worth model.
If you came down to City Hall, if you e-mailed, or phoned or wrote – Thank you for your contribution to the fight. It took exactly the amount of effort you and everyone else gave to make Wednesday's victory happen. It will take it again to pass a great ordinance.
But stick with us. We're making history.
It's become so common place these days that you're likely to take it for granted, but if you'd ask activists three years ago whether we'd end up carrying the Dallas Morning News on the issue of urban gas drilling, you would have been considered a dreamy-eyed do-gooder.
But in fact, across the board, from Trinity East to the new ordinance, from compressors to setbacks, the News editorial page has been leading public opinion in favor of common sense, transparency and caution ever since the City's Task Force began meeting in 2011.
That leadership continues with today's blunt recommendation to deny the Trinity East permits. Below is the entire editorial in its entirety, which contains as good a synopsis and talking points about the situation as you'll find.
Meanwhile we only have 24 more hours to fill-up the City Council's mail boxes with your messages of opposition to these awful permits. Please click here to take you to our automatic e-mail system or see this alert for the Council's e-mail addresses. Then join us downtown at City Hall tomorrow afternoon at 12:30 pm for the historic vote and come celebrate with us at Lee Harvey's afterwards.
Editorial: Dallas City Council, vote no on gas drilling plan
After months of sidestepping the issue, the Dallas City Council now must do the right thing Wednesday — deny Trinity East’s application for permits to drill on parkland and flood plains around the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.
This shouldn’t be a difficult vote. The Dallas Plan Commission twice considered and rejected the permit application — the correct vote because existing city policy bars drilling on the surface of parkland. Now the City Council should step up and also reject Trinity East’s proposal.
In 2008, the city sold lease rights to drill on city-owned land to Trinity East for $19 million and used the money to help balance the budget. It was an ill-conceived decision, prematurely pushed through for budgetary reasons before city officials had decided how they would regulate drilling within city limits.
Due to low prices for natural gas, the project remained dormant until Trinity East revealed plans late last year to build a compressor station and drill on the surface of parkland. The controversy heightened this spring when news broke that former City Manager Mary Suhm had privately told Trinity East she would help it win the right to drill on parkland at the same time she was publicly assuring the council that she would not support drilling on city parkland. The proposal became such a tangled mess that this editorial board sharply criticized City Hall for lack of transparency and due diligence and urged denial of Trinity East’s application.
Trinity East needs 12 of the 15 council votes to override the Plan Commission decision and grant the drilling permits. Council members Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Sandy Greyson and Adam Medrano are solidly on record against the proposal, and at least two others, Carolyn Davis and Monica Alonzo, indicated in The Dallas Morning News Voter Guide last spring that they opposed gas drilling.
We hope the council has learned from this debacle and will deliver a “no” vote Wednesday.
The Trinity East proposal is the wrong plan at the wrong time. Before City Hall considers another drilling proposal from any company, officials must transparently develop a tough new drilling ordinance that protects Dallas neighborhoods. The Plan Commission is in the process of writing an ordinance that, among other things, we hope provides safe setback distances from homes and schools, addresses water use in droughts and continues the ban on gas drilling on the surface of parkland.
Gas drilling can be done safely in an urban area if the proper safeguards and setbacks are adopted. Dallas needs to deny the Trinity East plan and then take the time to write rules that are in the best interest of all residents.
This Wednesday, August 28th, sometime after lunch, the Dallas City Council will finally decide the fate of the three Trinity East gas permits that have refused to die since they were foisted on residents by Mayor Rawlings just after Thanksgiving. This looks to the definitive last nail in the coffin of the "Zombie Permits" that are so bad, even the considerable contorting of the permitting process by the Powers-That-Be could not save them from not one, but two denials by the City Plan Commission.
Council members Adam Medrano, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, and Sandy Greyson have all committed to voting against the permits. Normally that would mean defeat in a 15-member Council, but since the Plan Commission voted to deny, the rules say it takes a super-majority of 3/4 of the Council to overturn such a denial. With these four council members on our side, we have exactly the number to prevent a super majority of approval, with no room to spare.
So we need your help again to make sure this happens and that this is the last time we call folks out to fight these very bad permits. We're asking you to do three things:
1) Spend 30 seconds sending an e-mail to all 15 Dallas City Council members that urges them to vote against the permits on Wednesday. Since we only have about 24 hours left before the vote, please do this now by stopping by our "Featured Citizen Action" page here.
This form e-mail has some good talking points for Wednesday but you can also add your own comments at the end if you like.
If you don't want to use that system, please feel free to compose your own e-mails and send them to the council at these addresses:
firstname.lastname@example.org, District11@dallascityhall.com, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com,
But time is of the essence. Please do this right now. Let's make sure they know we're still watching them.
2) Come down to City Hall at 12:30 pm and be prepared to tell the City Council why these permits should be denied. Since the permits are regular agenda items, anyone can can sign-up and speak about them for 2 minutes each. We need a lot of speakers to balance out what we expect to be another attempt to turn out folks from the industry. It's late-breaking concern over what Dallas is doing is the highest compliment to the effectiveness of your work so far. Don't let it go for naught by taking this last piece of action for granted. This is the first vote by a Dallas City Council on gas permits. It's the first time any of these Council members will have voted on anything to do with gas drilling. It's a landmark vote. We need you to be there to demonstrate not only your widespread opposition to the Trinity East permits, but your support for a much stronger gas ordinance. This is the same council that will be receiving the final draft of the new gas drilling ordinance in just a month.
With these Trinity East permits, there is always the chance of last-minute skullduggery by the Mayor and staff to try and win approval by applying heavy pressure about lawsuit threats etc. We need you there in numbers to prevent such a last-minute move from being successful, or as a last-resort, to raise Holy Hell if it does.
3) Come Celebrate a Citizens Victory. After what we hope will be a victorious vote Wednesday afternoon, you're invited to drive a few blocks down from City Hall to a nice little bar and restaurant called Lee Harvey's (1807 Gould St Dallas, TX 75215 214-428-1555) to celebrate. Our fight against these permits has seen the modern maturation of the Dallas environmental movement as a force to be reckoned with. We've created the most successful citizens coalition in recent memory. This has been, as the Morning News stated, one of the most important zoning fights in Dallas history, not to mention public health and safety. These kinds of victories are too few and far between not to be officially recognized. We know you've spent a lot of time fighting these permits, now please come spend an hour or so reveling in your success. You deserve it.
However, If something unexpected does occur and somehow the permits are still alive on Wednesday afternoon, we'll need a watering hole close by to debrief and plan, so come on over and plot with us win, lose or draw.
To recap, three easy steps to killing the TrinityEast zombie gas permits:
1) Send an e-mail to the Council right now.
2) Bring your butt down to the 6th floor Council chambers at City Hall again at 12:30 pm Wednesday and show this City Council these permits and their scandal still matters to you. Don't let industry out-organize you now.
3) Bring you butt over to Lee Harvey's after the Council's vote to celebrate or commiserate.
See you on Wednesday. Thanks for all your effort on this issue.
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.
We've learned form sources inside City Hall that Trinity East – with a big assist from City of Dallas staff and Mayor Mike Rawlings – is preparing to once again attempt to permit its three proposed drilling and refinery/compressor station sites along the Trinity River.
While the company and city staff keep trying to win support for a weaker new gas drilling ordinance than citizens have repeatedly requested, a deal is being wheeled that would have Trinity East trading its lease on park land for another piece of city-owned property in northeast Dallas. Meanwhile, the City is also working feverishly to firm up support for its official position that it can't possibly turn down Trinity East without losing a lawsuit – an opinion no one outside of City Hall, save Trinity East, shares so far.
Yeah, the secret gas deal that the Observer uncovered in February got City Manger Mary Suhm to finally leave the building come December, but she's not going until she gets those Trinity East sites permitted the way she promised behind closed doors.
All of which makes the writing of a brand new Dallas gas drilling ordinance even more important now. And last week the City Plan Commission released its two-month schedule of how that's going to be done (see below), complete with three (daytime) public hearings with an ETA to the City Council by October.
There will be just six more meetings of the Plan Commission to review the almost two-year old Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force recommendations and decide to take them at face value, strengthen them, or weaken them. Scatted among these will be three public hearings – the first one in a little over two weeks on August 15th from 4 to 6 pm. The Commission goal is to get a new drilling ordinance to the City Council by October, when the terms of current members expire.
That's the official agenda. The unofficial one is trying to find ways to weaken the new ordinance enough to allow Trinity East to be able to get their proposed sites permitted. There's already been plenty of evidence at previous meetings indicating how desperate staff is in trying to give their departing boss a going-away gift.
We know most of you can't come to the Plan Commission workshops on Thursday mornings to follow the nitty-gritty of how this plays out. We'll be there reporting that to you, no problem. But what we can't do is manufacture warm bodies to put in seats for those three public hearings. Please make it a point to show up at one or more of these – and in particular, the very last one on September 26th as it rolls into the City Council.
Trinity East lobbyist Dallas Cothrum is on record as saying the company's three previously proposed sites on parkland, flood plains and near a new soccer complex that have now been rejected twice by this same CPC were the "best possible" places the company could have chosen for drilling and processing. So now the battle is over the less-than-best possible places. We can't wait to see what part of town the City and Trinity will decide to sacrifice for that designation as part of their possible land-swap deal.
Making sure a new drilling ordinance is the most protective it can possibly be is the only way left to finally drive a stake through the heart of the Trinity East gas permits. You have no idea how much we hate to ring the alarm about these damn permits again, but the stakes are very high and we're on the verge of winning one of the Barnett Shale's biggest citizen victories – if we can just keep the pedal to the metal. Bring your lead feet to the first hearing on August 15th.
Schedule for the City Plan Commission's Workshops and Public Hearings on the New Gas Drilling Ordinance
(All workshop meetings start at 9 am and take place on the 5th floor at 5ES in City Hall unless otherwise indicated. Specific Room locations for the Public Hearings at City Hall will be announced. Topic #’s refer to the Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force Recommendations Matrix.)
THURSDAY, JULY 25
9:00 am – 12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 4 – Pad Site Operations
THURSDAY, AUGUST 8
9:00 am -12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 9 – Gas Drilling/Well Permit
• Topic 14 – Bonding Requirements
• Topic 15 – Site Monitoring and Review of Permit Application
THURSDAY, AUGUST 15
1:30 pm – 3:30 pm Workshop
• Topic 13 – Required Plans
THURSDAY, AUGUST 15th PUBLIC HEARING: 4:00 – 6:00 pm
THURSDAY, AUGUST 22
9:00 am to 12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 1 – Air Quality
• Topic 2 – Water
THURSDAY AUGUST 29
9:00 am – 10:45 am CPC Workshop
• Topic 3 – Physical Pad Site
• Topic 16 – Emergency Response
• Topic 5 – Abandonment and Restoration
THURSDAY, AUGUST 29th PUBLIC HEARING: 11:00 AM -12:00 NOON
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
9:00 – 12 Noon CPC Workshop
• Topic 10 – Seismic Permits
• Topics 6 – Pipelines and Compressors
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26th PUBLIC HEARING 1:30 PM -?
(Agenda: What to recommend to City Council)
Rebuking city attorneys, the Dallas City Plan Commission agreed on Thursday to require 1500 foot setbacks, or buffer zones from gas wells to "protected uses" such as homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, recreation areas, and parks. A waiver to get as close as 1000 feet would have to come with a three-fourths vote by the City Council. No well could be closer than 1000 feet.
City staff was pushing hard to retain the 2012 gas task force recommendations of 1000 feet, with a waiver to as close as 500 feet, something even the Dallas Morning News said was unacceptable. Those less-protective distances are seen as a way to get the twice-rejected Trinity East permits approved under a new ordinance.
Plan commission members also agreed to include more kinds of businesses in the protected use category, such as laundry services and vehicle pool operations, somewhat erasing the blue collar/white collar double-standard of protection sanctioned by the task force.
Left pending, and full of skullduggery potential for city attorneys, is where to begin and end that 1500 feet. Most citizens would probably go from property line to property line to ensure the entire protection of the "protected use." But city attorneys want to begin at the well bore hole itself and go to the "structure" of the protected use – not your front yard, but your front door; not the soccer field itself, but the recreation center next to it. This will be the next big battle over how to define these setbacks.
Also left pending were what, if any, exceptions for park drilling there should be in the new ordinance. Even more important to the Trinity East permits than the residential setback requirement is the current prohibition on drilling in parks. Here, city staff also was lobbying very, very hard to retain the special loophole for the Trinity East permits the task force abruptly voted to make at their very last meeting and without any public comment. Preservation of this loophole – you can drill on "unused" park land despite there being no legal definition supporting that term – means that Trinity East would have a fighting chance to come back and re-file.
Although seemingly rejecting the task force recommendations, Plan Commission members still expressed desire to carve out some kinds of exceptions for park land that was perhaps not publicly or readily accessible, but had trouble articulating the definition of "unused." Under the law, park land is park land; there is no A to F park grading system. That's why the easiest and most protetive thing to do is ban drilling from parks all together.
The devil will be in the details, but in the first real test vote for a more protective gas drilling ordinance, citizens won. And it drove city attorney Tammy Palomino crazy. As Plan Commission members got more and more independent over the course of the two-hour briefing, you expected her to start reaching for the cattle prod. After calling for a reconsideration not once, not twice, but three times after she got beat bad on the vote for the 15000 ft setback she announced that staff would return at the next meeting with a "presentation" on the 1500 foot setback. No doubt it will focus entirely on why it's a bad idea for all kinds of reasons other than it'll make it harder for Trinity East to get their permits.
Make no mistake, the City Manager's office, through staff like Palomino, is still fighting on behalf of those Trinity East permits, and the permits she expects to come after those. She's trying to minimize the number of protected uses and the spaces between them and your house, school or playground.
If you want to fight back but can't show up in person to tell the Commission what you think, please consider sending a qucik click N send e-mail message to the members via our "Featured Action of the Week."
The Plan Commission will be getting briefings from staff on different parts of the new ordinance every two weeks throughout the summer (July 11 and 25 August 8 and 22) with at least one or two public hearings on the finished product after that. All meetings begin at 9 am and are conducted at Room 5ES on the fifth floor of Dallas City Hall downtown. The next meeting is supposed to focus on the operations of a well site, i.e. hours of operation, noise, dust, plus the all-important landscaping requirements. Stay tuned.
On Thursday, Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm announced that she was resigning. Just about every news account of her announcement connected it to a series of missteps over the last several years, most prominently, the February disclosure by the Dallas Observer that she had signed a previously unknown agreement with Trinity East promising to work with the company to overturn current policy and help secure permits to drill for gas in city parks.
Although superficially dealt with by an official airing in front of the Council where most members forfeited their roles as keepers of the public trust, the issue kept floating to the top of any discussion about not only the Trinity East permits, but the general issue of gas drilling in Dallas. Every City Council race questionnaire this election cycle had queries about not only the specific permits, but also about the performance of the City Manager in wrestling with the scandal. This wasn't going away.
Suhm had what she believed was a plausible public explanation for how she made an honest mistake in misleading the Council over the agreement….for five years. What was always lacking was an explanation for why she continued to lie to Dallas residents about it for that long. Not one word of any defense of her focused on why it was wrong for a city official to align herself against citizens fighting irresponsible drilling and not tell them about that alignment as the entire city went through a multi-year reassessment of urban drilling, first with a moratorium on new permits, then a gas drilling task force, then the permitting process for the Trinity East permits themselves.
instead she directed city staff to distort the system to enable illegal permits to appear legal. Zoning classifications appeared or disappeared depending on the forum. One-off exemptions were carved out as necessary. Park drilling? Perfectly fine under these "special" set of circumstances. Flood plain drilling? No problem either. Anything to make these square pegs fit in otherwise round holes.
Common decency and allegiance to democratic principles demands that she should have publicly disclosed the agreement with Trinity East the minute a review of current city drilling policy began. She did not. When it was involuntarily disclosed for her by the Observer, she looked exactly like the co-conspirator she was.
There's no question that the fight citizens' groups have waged against the Trinity East permits led directly to the disclosure of the agreement. Based solely on circumstantial evidence, it was clear that there was some kind of unpublicized deal that had been "cut" between City Hall and Trinity East. Looking for it became the political equivalent of looking for Dark Matter in the Universe. Everything happening pointed to its existence, but you couldn't actually see the thing itself.
But here's the punch line. Citizens only started to look for that deal after Suhm and the Mayor decided to fast-track the Trinity East permits in late November. It was that decision, made without any warning to the residents that had been involved in the drilling fight, and abruptly ending a year-plus long moratorium on new gas permits, that re-energized opposition and led to Suhm's resignation only six months later. Suhm fracked herself the minute she began to plot with the Mayor to undercut due process and try to pull a fast one on citizens. If they hadn't been in such a clumsy rush to get the Trinity East permits approved, none of this would have happened like it did.
Last week's municipal elections solidified a slightly more independent Dallas City Council, with new and re-elected members who openly oppose the Mayor's pro-drilling stance. Trinity East's permits, which needed a Council super-majority to be approved, look to be doomed. Rawlings' own political future is clouded – how many North Texas mayors have unpopular proposed refineries named after them? The landscape of city politics has changed over the last six months. Citizens fighting City Hall did that. But it was City Hall itself who set it in motion.
Opening up another official front of opposition, the Irving City Council unanimously passed two resolutions at their regular monthly meeting Thursday night that puts the city on the record against Dallas' plans for park and floodplain drilling.
Besides rhetorically taking a side, Irving opposition could be important because Trinity East Big Cheese Tom Blanton told the city's officials last month that, although the controversial wells and refinery the company wants to build on the banks of the Trinity will be within the City of Dallas, the lateral drilling from those wells are actually planned to go under the City of Irving. They'll put the straw down in Dallas but Trinity East wants to really drink Irving's milkshake
One resolution was aimed at opposing the three Trinity East permits themselves and a second one was aimed at opposing drilling in, on or near Irving city parks. Since both were on the Council's "consent agenda," there was no discussion so we don't know if there's a second shoe that's going to drop in terms of denying mineral rights to Trinity East outright. That might be complicated by the fact that there are already at least two wells near the University of Dallas (in Irving) that the company drilled on behalf of itself and others, including the City of Irving.
Irving's opposition comes a week after the revelation that Dallas City Council member Monica Alonzo, in whose district all three Trinity East wells are located, now "opposes drilling anywhere in the city," a U-Turn on the subject, since just last year she was reported as salivating at the prospect of royalty money from the wells. That could also be critical, because council members often defer to their colleagues when it comes to zoning matters within each other's districts. Of course, there's one way to prove her new-found conversion – sign-on to the internal memo that Council members Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt have circulated asking for five signatures to bring the matter up for an immediate vote by the full council.
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.