Three years ago, the City of Denton had its eyes opened to how weak its natural gas drilling and production ordinance is. Range Resources was allowed to drill five wells on Rayzor Ranch across the street from homes and McKenna Park and next door to the hospital. We had fallen behind the times. Other cities on the Barnett Shale have rules for fracking that more adequately protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.
Since the Rayzor Ranch debacle, the City has been working on a new ordinance. About a month ago, a draft of the new rules was released for public comment. I worked with an engaged group of citizens to file a report outlining 28 ways in which the rules should be strengthened. We hope City Council will adopt our amendments when they vote on the final ordinance in December.
Devon Energy, Eagleridge Operating, and Chesapeake Energy Corporation also submitted comments. Oil and gas companies are legitimate stakeholders in this policy decision and the experience they offer can be valuable. Some of their recommendations were quite reasonable. But most were not. Here are five bad ideas they have:
1. They want Denton to reduce the setbacks between wells and protected uses (like homes, parks, and hospitals). They also want to remove setbacks from freshwater wells. They claim fracking is safe. But we don’t have nearly enough data to support this claim and some of the few studies that do exist actually contradict it. Further, it does not square with numerous health complaints from those living near wells. Current rules allow a gas site annually to emit 25 tons of VOCs and 10 or more tons of other pollutants. We should increase setbacks, not decrease them.
2. They want to remove a requirement that all impacted property owners must consent to reductions in setback distances. But this would permit a majority to coerce a minority into having a well just 250 fee from their homes. One company justified this, by remarking that to require the informed consent of everyone put at risk would place “an unnecessary burden” on the industry. So, there we have their take on justice: throw it out the window when it conflicts with efficiency and the bottom line.
3. They want to require that Denton’s gas well inspectors notify a company prior to inspecting pad sites. But this takes out the element of surprise necessary for catching bad behavior. One company claims this is for reasons of “safety” on site (the same sites that are supposedly so safe that we can reduce and remove setbacks from them). This may be so, but it also gives them time to clean up their act before they can be caught in the act.
4. They want Denton to cede authority to the Railroad Commission, which is notorious for their lax rules. The mission of this Texas State agency is to “prevent waste of the state’s natural resources,” where “waste” means anything but digging them up and consuming them. It is not their job to protect the health and safety of Denton citizens. That is our job as a home rule municipality.
5. More generally, they claim that Denton’s rules are pre-empted by state and federal laws, especially vesting laws that would let them play by older, weaker rules. This comes across as a veiled threat that Denton had better curtail its claims to authority if it does not want to get sued. But other cities have far stricter rules and have prevailed in legal challenges. Denton has home rule status and the broad authority that comes with it. We should not be afraid to exercise that authority.
They have other bad ideas, such as weakening monitoring and reporting requirements. But this is enough to make the point: these ideas are a simple flick of the pen and a vote from becoming our rules. That must not happen. But it might: Devon Energy brought a van load of their people up to Denton to share these ideas with the Planning and Zoning Commission. More industry presence is sure to follow. We must stay vigilant to ensure City Council gives us a strong ordinance.
There is some middle ground here to accommodate profitable development of minerals and protection of our community. That is why our report recommends implementing industry-recognized best practices that boost environmental and economic performance. I hope that gas companies can shift their strategy from undermining rules and issuing threats to forging alliances around common interests.