In some cities, behind neat brick walls and wrought iron fences, you might find rows of nice homes.
In Fort Worth, you might find a gas well.
“We’re still drilling wells. We have three sites that are actively drilling. We have 2,000 producing wells,” said Tom Edwards, a senior inspector with the City of Fort Worth’s gas drilling division.
Since the drilling surge began in 2001 and peaked in 2008, Fort Worth residents learned a lot about the energy business. It was in their backyards, parks, and near hospitals. And just like the recent revelation that ExxonMobil’s own chairman was fighting construction related to drilling near his home in a Dallas suburb, there was resistance in Fort Worth.
The city and its residents learned that the promise of riches from lease payments and royalties might come with a cost. The best example of that is a wooded lot near an exercise trail that runs along the Trinity River said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth attorney. He specializes in land use issues involving the energy industry and served on the city’s Gas Drilling Task Force.
Save the Trees, Drill the Well
“It’s a very beautiful area, lots of hikers, bikers, walkers. And so when it came out [that] this grove of trees, old growth trees, was going to be leveled for a drilling site, it really brought a lot of people in the community to the awareness that ‘Wow, things are about to change here in Fort Worth,’” said Bradbury.
Following an outcry by residents, the drilling company, Chesapeake Energy, agreed in 2007 to slash the size of the drill site almost in half, saving many of the old trees. The resulting 1.4-acre well site is now surrounded by a low, black chain link fence.
“It was a real lesson. If you push hard enough, and you want to see it done right, it can be done right. And you can produce these minerals in a more sensitive way,” Bradbury told StateImpact Texas.
In the early stages of the surge, drilling companies sometimes were less than sensitive to neighborhood concerns, according to Rick Trice, the city’s chief gas drilling inspector. (Drilling industry representatives contacted by StateImpact Texas would not provide comment for this story).
“Executives from outside [Fort Worth] would come to public meetings and get frustrated and go, ‘We can just do what we want to.’ I mean, it was kind of obnoxious. They quickly learned [that] if you’re going to do work in Fort Worth in an urban environment, and with some of the politics, that just wasn’t going to be the way things were going to operate.”
Cities Regulate What State Doesn’t
In Texas, where officials regularly predict the demise of the energy industry should it be over-regulated, Fort Worth found there was little state agencies could do when it came to minimizing the impact of drilling.
So over the years, the city has passed and toughened its own rules for how much noise drillers can make and how close a drill site can be to homes, schools or hospitals (600 feet in most cases). At City Hall, you’ll now find the “Gas Drilling Division” in the city’s planning department.
“We can regulate land use. And you can expect a lot of conflict with what is essentially an industrial activity in an urban area. That’s what our ordinance attempts to do, is to attack quality-of-life issues,” said Trice.
Late last year, Dallas followed, passing even stricter rules for drillers. In Denton, there’s a push to totally ban the drilling technique called fracking. And at a meeting in January, even the state’s drilling regulator, the Railroad Commission of Texas, suggested Texas might consider changing its rules.
Speaking about one facet of the drilling process — getting rid of drilling waste fluids using what are called disposal wells — the Railroad Commission chairman, Barry Smitherman, said there’s no provisions under state law for regulating drilling’s impact on quality of life issues.
“We hear this every time we get an application for our disposal permit and adjoining landowners want to express their concern about traffic, noise, dust. And if we were to take those into consideration, the law is going to have to change. Perhaps people need to take a look at that,” said Smitherman, alluding to state lawmakers.
This story comes from the StateImpact Texas project, where you can listen to the audio story.