A Moron's Guide to the Fracking of Dallas

Categories: The Environment

In this week's print edition, staff writer Anna Merlan provides a handy guide to natural-gas drilling debate in Dallas. Read on for a primer, a glossary of terms, a look at the opponents and supporters and a special fracking board game!

Important civic issues have a way of sneaking up on you. They do that, typically, by being so goddamned boring that you ignore them until it's impossible to do otherwise. Garbage, redistricting, municipal judge appointments: Those were just a few of the hotly debated topics that all of us did our best to avoid, right up until the point that "hotly debated" meant City Council members were yelling at each other about racism and staging dramatic walkouts. (Seriously, you should start watching the Wednesday council meetings on public access television. Better than a dozen telenovelas).

One of the longest-running debates you likely haven't been paying attention to is gas drilling within city limits. Since 2007 or so, it's been discussed in stultifying City Hall hearings, fulminated against on environmentalists' blogs and had its pros and cons weighed in newspaper articles you skipped right over in favor of reading about that teacher who had group sex with everybody.

Yes, it's unsexy. But it's here. In the coming weeks or months, Dallas City Council members will finally vote on new regulations for drilling inside the city limits. Those rules, if drilling companies and sympathetic-minded council members get their way, will allow for drilling in parkland, in the floodplains along the Trinity River and in some cases as near as 500 feet from places like houses and schools.

A growing body of scientific literature suggest that gas drilling, specifically the process of fracking (pouring millions of gallons of water and chemicals down a well to break up shale below ground and release the natural gas trapped in it) has negative effects on air quality, might contaminate groundwater, increases the numbers of small earthquakes around disposal well sites (where the waste water from fracking is deposited), and may allow you to increase the amount of tap water that you can set on fire by 100 percent.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in city coffers suggest that drilling companies paid a lot of bucks for leases around here, and they will get mighty disgruntled and probably quite litigious if their drill bits don't end up in some soil soon. Five years ago, Dallas officials began soliciting gas drilling companies to buy leases on city-owned land; two companies, Trinity East and XTO, ended up paying around $33.7 million to purchase leases. The city also stands to receive 25 percent royalties on gas drawn by Trinity East. From XTO, they've been promised a 26 percent royalty as well as $50,000 per acre used for drilling. At the time the leases were bought, the city ordinances regulating drilling were either frighteningly lax or remarkably respectful of the power of the free market, depending on your point of view.

Click to embiggen and play The Game of Frack!
After some pointed grumbling from local residents who didn't necessarily want to see a drilling operation in their kids' sandbox, City Council members decided more study might be needed. They auditioned members for a task force to issue new, nonbinding recommendations on what the city's updated drilling ordinance should look like.

"We thought we were going to talk about whether drilling was safe enough to happen in an urban area," says task force member Cherelle Blazer. She's a Yale-educated scientist who heads an environmental nonprofit, You Can't Live In the Woods. "By the time I was appointed and we were briefed on what our charge was, it changed into a foregone conclusion and we were just there to decide on an ordinance."

In June of last year, Blazer joined two other members meant to represent "neighborhood and environmental interests." Three people from the gas industry were also appointed, along with three supposedly neutral "subject matter experts." The group met for more than eight months, three months longer than they'd planned. From the start, Blazer says, pressure from community groups and energy companies alike was intense. "The frequency from the activists was more, but industry was very, very persistent," she says. "Before and after each meeting, they'd tell us what our decision should be or what the ramifications of our vote that day were and tell us how they wanted us to vote." Occasionally, she says, they'd send polite emails to let the task force members know that a proposed rule was overly restrictive and "The City probably would have to go to court about that."

In the end, in a true spirit of compromise, the task force ended up with recommended rules that made both sides very grumpy. Dallas Cothrum, a zoning consultant who represents a number of energy companies, griped to the Morning News that the new rules amounted to a "moratorium" on drilling, while environmental groups said the proposed setbacks and rules for floodplains and parkland weren't strict enough.
The proposed rules included a 1,000-foot setback from homes, churches, schools and retail structures. But it said the City Council should be able to grant a variance to that rule, allowing just a 500-foot setback if 12 of the 15 of them voted for it. They recommended some parkland be opened to drilling, if it's not currently being used as a public park or playground and if it's near an industrial area. And the company doing the drilling would be required to minimize "dust, vibrations and odor" from its drilling site and to prevent groundwater contamination. It would also have to bear the cost for various water sampling and monitoring equipment.

Guess what? None of it matters. The City Council is obligated to take exactly none of the task force's suggestions. They've met privately with the city attorney at least once, presumably to hash out who they'd like to be sued by the least.
As we await a final set of rules -- ones which we predict will allow drilling in parks, floodplains, playgrounds and any hairdo over a certain height -- we've put together this handy board game to explain this complicated history. Gather around it with your loved ones and use it to guide you through the drilling process. Or wait six months or so and just watch it from your window.

Next up: A handy glossary to help you understand the fracking debate. Plus: Meet the players.

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This whole gas drilling thing is bogus - there is a unspoken assumption that many people have that gas drilling is patriotic and will free us from dependence on foreign energy supplies.  The fact is that the U.S. has become a major world EXPORTER of natural gas - over 1.5 trillion cubic feet this year.  Instead of holding onto our reserves, we're schlepping it out to anyone and everyone.  Tight rules on new exploration are not only environmentally sound but wise in the long run.


"A growing body of scientific literature suggest that gas drilling, specifically the process of fracking (pouring millions of gallons of water and chemicals down a well to break up shale below ground and release the natural gas trapped in it) has negative effects on air quality"

could you at least have provided links in the story to some of this literature? what about literature that provides an opposite point of view?


Mandatory gay sex?  And you're worried about fracking risk? 


@writerstevens I know this is about drilling for oil but I still can't say it without snickering.

Johnny Horton
Johnny Horton

Who knew Jub Jub was such an avid DO reader.


There are two kinds of decision makers:  those who see dollar signs, and those who want to know the facts and implications.  Come to the League of Women Voters educational forum TONIGHT.



WHEN:  Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 7 to 9 p.m.


WHERE: Northaven United Methodist Church, 11211 Preston Road, between Royal Lane and

                 Forest Lane


Facilitator: BJ Austin, Broadcast Journalist with KERA and winner of the 2009 Texas

                Associated Press Broadcasters Honorable Mention for best specialty/beat reporting on city government reporting


Panelists: Dr. Adam Briggle - Bio-Ethics, Environmental Studies, Ethics and Policy of Science 

    Technology at University of North Texas


    Mr. Patrick Shaw – Dallas Attorney with Woodward & Shaw and member of the

    Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force


    Mr. Terry Welch – Dallas Municipal Attorney with Brown and Hofmeister and  

    member of the Dallas Gas Drilling Task Force


    Dr. Tom Lapoint – Biology Professor at UNT with primary research and teaching

    interests including ecological risk assessment, contaminant effects on freshwater

    aquatic communities among other areas


    Mr. Gary Hogan – Citizen living next to Fort Worth fracking wells


   Dr. Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer – Director of Air Quality Research at HARC and Senior

    Research Scientist who obtained his Ph.D. in Meteorology from MIT  



@Texbard @Dallas_Observer not many places left to go. Freakin' Fracking is everywhere.


@Texbard good luck. I hear the economy sucks trying to find a job to relocate.


Guide written by morons, more like.


There are plenty of non-fictional reasons not to want to have drilling rigs and pumping units inside one's city limits.  Including fictional ones (like Gasland's "flaming spigot") makes the author look like a scientific nitwit and/or a political hack.


my question would be, who gets the money from the mineral rights for all this land?  I'm guessing most homeowners don't have mineral rights to their small parcels of land.  Does the city hold the mineral rights and get the money?  or do the gas companies just not have to pay for this natural resource they are taking?


Anna, congrats on creating a clever way to make this topic more accessible to everyone. I do like the way you condensed the timeline but I do want to point out a couple of things that are very important. The term 'Dallas officials' actually refers to just one:City Manager Mary Suhm. She went after the industry in 2007 and crafted the deal with City Attorney Tom Perkins as her partner. Then in February of 2008 she slams it down in front of the City Council telling them that she cashed the checks and told the Council if anyone didn't like that, to go find $35 million to cut from the City budget.Hunt and Rasanky were the only two to disagree with Suhm's actions and asked for more time to study the agreement. The City of Dallas did not have a gas ordinance at the time and while this financial wheeling and dealing was going on at Mary's desk, the City staff was told to throw together an ordinance by cutting and pasting from where ever they could. Two years ago, I sat in a meeting with Jill Jordan, City staff, and a few of my fellow concerned citizens going over grievances about this issue. I will say that Ms. Jordan listened attentively, asked questions and let us know that this was something new to her and wanted to be able to study the issue more. When the question was raised if the lease actually 'guaranteed' an opportunity to drill in the City of Dallas, one of the four City attorneys in attendance did state, 'well, the lease does contain nuance within it's language' but never agreed that the guarantee was solid. If you need sources to this story, you can find me. If others who were in that meeting want to come forward to confirm, they will.


Then there is the mineral rights issue, and how the City of Dallas came to own what they own throughout the city. That's another story that no one wants to talk about.


Finally, there are many more Dallas residents who are involved with this fight behind the scenes who were not acknowledged. The group includes a lot of women of many colors and professions, churches,Sierra Club, GreenSourceDFW, professionals,retirees,wealthy folks, and not throughout Dallas who only want to keep Dallas safe and clean for years to come. There are City Council members and City Planning Commissioners who have sided with the industry, and others who are asking the right questions with legitimate concerns. As the mayor said right after the election.."I will not put any neighborhood at risks because of money." We'll see about that.




in other words so a few multi millionaires can screw us over AGAIN so they can have a stinky,noisey,toxic sob of an energy finder in our city limits our city govt. has decreed that we will drink,breathe, and watch our children bathe in the nastiest mess try to sleep while a well is being constructed and operating, watch the wildlife around the city get sick and die a poisonous death with us soon to follow? but wait the multi millionaires will buy our property now in a designated hazardous living zone for the least amount of money causeing us to nearly give away our homes just to live????






and dont forget those overloaded tractors hauling in all that equipment 24 hrs. a day


 @cesar39nt Sorry, but I can't help laughing at "...... A WEALTHY BUNCH OF HIPPOCRATES,...."


Hippocrates himself is probably laughing in his grave at that one.


 @RTGolden oh wow i thought this is the morons guide so many edgeumaketed collage people here im so smart rt you should be awarded the piece prize {dont kno whatcha get a piece of but it must be good they give it to everybody it seems} tnks people made my own day


@RTGolden @cesar39nt Well stated, RT, my thoughts exactly.

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