Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Talking Point 3: Nix the Frack Pits

A third major amendment we need to push for is the prohibition of open pits.

It takes around 3 million gallons of water per frack job on the Barnett. About 1 million gallons of that will flow back upon completion of a well as produced water. Under the current rules, this water is allowed to be stored on site in open pits until it is hauled away for deep well injection.

These frack pits are problematic. The produced water not only contains all the hazardous chemicals used in frack fluids, but also all the contaminants (including heavy metals, VOCs, and radioactive material) picked up from rocks deep below the surface.

If these pits were to leak or spill (perhaps overflowing from a heavy rain), those toxins would enter the environment. Even the most glowing, industry-friendly reports (here is an example) will acknowledge that spills and leaks from pits are a legitimate concern.

In addition, some of the lighter hydrocarbons, such as benzene, can volatalize (offgas) from frack pits, thereby adding threats to air quality to those already present for soil and water quality.

Once again, other municipalities on the Barnett Shale have led the way - this time, by prohibiting open pits and requiring closed-loop drilling fluid systems, which replace pits with closed containers -- a process that also allows for some water reuse. Flower Mound, Southlake, and Hurst have all taken these steps.

So here is another case where there is a clear risk, a technological fix (closed-loop systems replace pits), and legal precedent at the municipal level. You tell me why pits are still allowed in the draft ordinance...I just don't get it.

Talking Point 2: Increased Set Backs

DAG would like to see the required distances between wells and protected uses increased from 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

Why? Well, because 2,500 feet is probably not politically realistic. 1,500 feet is certainly achievable - Flower Mound already has this in their ordinance.

Ok, but why is it necessary to move wells back further from places where people live, work, and play?

We have been running a real-world experiment with shale gas development in urban areas (more generally, fracking close to people). We presumed this was largely non-problematic (thus very short minimal distances required in the early goings). We have been collecting data (though not nearly enough) to test that presumption. And it turns out that it looks like a bad assumption, so we need to adjust the distances upward.

What evidence is there for my claim? There is this FLIR video that shows VOCs belching from a pad site right next to a park. We did not know about this, because we have not been using the best technologies to monitor for pollutants. But now we have started using such technologies and I think the conclusion is that we would like parks, schools, and homes to be further away from this kind of pollution. Citizen-science has made the invisible visible - we can now see what has been hidden.

There is this 2012 study funded by the Colorado School of Public Health. It found: "Residents living less than .5 mile  from wells are at greater risk for health effects from NGD than are residents living more than .5 mile from wells. Subchronic exposures to air pollutants during well completion activities present the greatest potential for health effects. The subchronic non-cancer hazard index (HI) of 5 for residents less than .5 mile from wells was driven primarily by exposure to trimethylbenzenes, xylenes, and aliphatic hydrocarbons. Chronic HIs were 1 and 0.4. for residents less than .5 mile and more than .5 mile, respectively. Cumulative cancer risks were 10 in a million and 6 in a million for residents living less than .5 mile and more than .5 mile from wells, respectively, with benzene as the major contributor to the risk."

I think we know enough now to warrant futher protections - further distances from pad sites.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Talking Point 1: Green Completions and Zero Flaring

City Council will hold its first public hearing about the drilling and production ordinance on Nov. 6 (and a second one on Nov. 13). Those of us who support the DAG amendments should coordinate our speaking slots so as to maximize the information we convey and the impact we have. One idea is for each person to focus on a different aspect of our recommendations.

Toward that end, I thought I would start a series of blogs on talking points for the City Council meeting. I don't know it all, so please comment with additional information.

Here is one DAG recommendation: Require green completions and prohibit flaring in all cases except for emergencies.

Green completiona (or reduced emissions completions, RECs) are an EPA STAR recommended practice. Here is their description of the problem: "[Fracked] wells are completed by producing the fluids at a high rate to lift the excess sand to the surface and clear the well bore and formation to increase gas flow. Typically, the gas/liquid separatorinstalled for normal well flow is not designed for these high liquid flow rates and three-phase (gas, liquid and sand) flow. Therefore, a common practice for this initial well completion step has been to produce the well to a pit or tanks where water, hydrocarbon liquids and sand are captured and slugs of gas vented to the atmosphere or flared. Completions can take anywhere from one day to several weeks during which time a substantial amount of gas may be released to the atmosphere or flared."

Here is the solution: " [Green completions are] an alternate practice that captures gas produced during well completions and well workovers following hydraulic fracturing. Portable equipment is brought on site to separate the gas from the solids and liquids produced during the high-rate flowback, and produce gas that can be delivered into the sales pipeline. RECs help to reduce methane, VOC, and HAP emissions during well cleanup and can eliminate or significantly reduce the need for flaring. RECs have become a popular practice among Natural GasSTAR production partners."

Indeed they have. In fact, Devon Energy (with 5,000 wells on the Barnett) claims that this has been their "standard practice since 2004." Here we are in 2012 and it is still not in our ordinance.

What's so bad about flaring? Well it "causes many sorts of pollution - noise, toxic gasses, soot acid rain and the production of carbon dioxide." That quote is from an industry report! The report details ways in which flaring can be eliminated.

Oh, and by the way, the EPA is going to require green completions for all wells by 2015.

And, finally, green completions are required (including the prohibition of flaring) by Flower Mound, Southlake, and Dish.

This one seems like a no brainer: Clear health impacts, an industry-recognized practice, legal precedent, and impending federal requirement. Let's get it in the ordinance.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why the Gas Industry Should Not Write the Rules

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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

DAG Report Released

The DAG report, titled "Amendments to Denton's Gas Drilling and Production Ordinance," has just been sent to City Council. Now it is time to make sure the ideas outlined in the report become the law of the land. It is time to engage with City Council in a discussion about why the draft ordinance remains too weak and how we can make it stronger.

Here's the message I sent to our City Council members via e-mail today:

Dear City Council members,
Attached, please find a report titled “Amendments to Denton’s Gas Drilling and Production Ordinance.” It outlines 28 specific changes to address remaining shortcomings in the current draft ordinance. The report is authored by the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group (DAG), a collection of engaged citizen-experts. We hope that you will consider our recommendations as you discuss the draft and ultimately vote on a final ordinance.
We recognize the many benefits of gas drilling, but we believe that it must be conducted in a manner consistent with the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Denton. Important measures such as green completions, the prohibition of flaring, and prohibition of open pits are crucial to protecting our citizens. We also recognize the many legal limitations involved in this case, but our recommendations provide reasonable and feasible options that are within the jurisdictional authority of the City of Denton. Indeed, many of our recommendations have already been implemented by other cities on the Barnett Shale.
More can and should be done to make drilling and production compatible with our living, thriving community. We believe that our report outlines practical steps in this direction.
Please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you for your consideration.
Adam Briggle
Chair, Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group
(940) 369-5136

Monday, October 22, 2012

Protecting the ETJ

The new draft ordinance makes it very clear that most of its regulations do not apply to the ETJ. This is because of a common reading of Texas law that limits the power of municipalities to govern their ETJs via zoning. Thus, our ordinance states that drilling can happen in the ETJ by right and many of the sections begin with the caveat "the provisions of this section shall apply within the corporate limits of the City of Denton." This includes sections that spell out separation standards, safety and environmental requirements, and equipment standards.

If you believe that such standards are important for protecting health, safety, and welfare, then the fact that they will not apply in the ETJ is troubling. It means that someone in the ETJ could have a well closer to their home AND have that operation follow rules that are far more lax.

Now, I am open to debating the merits of this argument about environmental justice.

The problem is that we are not even having the argument, because we presume that we cannot regulate the ETJ.

That may not be true.

The Town of Dish just passed this ordinance, which applies the same regulations to the ETJ as within the territorial limits of the town.

(Note: It also applies to all pre-existing wells and it revokes the permit in case of any violations.)

So, looks like it may be feasible. Let's at least have the discussion.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Wanted: Big Ideas

The new, new draft ordinance is out. I appreciate all the work City Staff has put into this, and I appreciate the open review they have given us: we get a line-by-line look at the changes.

But of those changes - 146 in total - only one seems to really address a big idea that had been voiced by citizens. The draft now requires private water well testing. That is good, but let's not forget the Task Force made this recommendation - it should have been in there already. There is one other decent change in some language that bolsters the leak detection and compliance plan.

The other 144 changes are small ideas (they use the word 'minor' 46 times to describe their alterations). They are driven by consultants and staff - not by citizens. They are mostly technical wordsmithing issues. I guess they really wanted this extra time to further refine the legalese rather than to truly open things up for adjustment via public input. How many of the 146 comments reference the (rushed) public input --- you guessed it, ZERO.

There is clearly great angst about making sure we comply with state and federal law -- just witness the huge new sections they added to clarify all the many ways operators can claim vested rights and to lay out variance and appeals processes, including a new process for operators to make their case that City ordinance is preempted by state and federal law.

Lots of concern here about not getting sued - about making sure operators have every chance to wriggle out of our new rules. But I don't see similar concern about making sure the ordinance reflects the voice of the citizens.

But we are the ones with the big ideas - the ideas that will really make a difference when it comes to protecting the health of our children. They are not about saying 'no' to fracking. They are, rather, about designing a technical system compatible with health, safety, and welfare. Indeed, some of our big ideas will save operators money. They are not crazy ideas - just big ideas.

Here are some big ideas for Denton --- but they are ho-hum for other cities on the Barnett who have already accomplished them:

1. Increase set-back distances
2. Prohibit open pits
3. Require green completions/ prohibit venting and flaring
4. Prohibit compressor stations
5. Require low-toxicity drilling fluids
6. Require comprehensive air, water, and soil monitoring

And here are some big ideas that could put Denton back at the leading edge of citizen protection and best practices on the Barnett:

1. Require operators to purchase renewable energy to run their equipment --- how about it: Wind-powered gas wells! Now that is a bridge fuel.
2. Strengthen VOC capture from condensate tanks --- seems like no one really has thought through all the potential here of alternative vapor recovery units.
3. Require zero-emission dehydrators, low-bleed or no-bleed pneumatic valves,  and other best practices. Denton could lead the pack by requiring the best environmental performance possible. 
4. Establish a pad site upgrade incentive program -- why not divert some gas well fund revenues into installing best practices on old pad sites? A great technological work-around for some of the vested rights business.

What are your big ideas? Now is the time to put them on the radar of City Council.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

DAG Amendments - let's see how they compare to the new, new draft

Sometime in the next 24 hours the Task Force is going to release another draft of the ordinance, which should reflect citizen input.

DAG has compiled its own set of amendments (available in draft form - a finalized version to be released after incorporating changes in the new, new draft). I include a chart summarzing our proposed changes below.

So, let's see how many of our ideas (which many DAG members and other citizens submitted via e-mail) have made it into the new, new draft.

Stay tuned for our final report with our proposed amendments - for now, here is where we stand with our response to the old, new draft (released on Oct. 1):

Broaden the purpose of ordinance
Ft. Worth, Grand Prairie, and more…
Require cathodic protection
Grand Prairie, Southlake
Broaden definition of protected use
Flower Mound
Prohibit drilling by right
Ft. Worth, Grand Prairie, Southlake
Require seismic permit
Southlake, Flower Mound
Require permit alterations abide by current ordinance
Task Force Minority Report
Increase separation standards
Flower Mound
Alter variances
Grand Prairie
Require zero emission dehydrators
EPA STAR best practice
Strengthen vapor recovery unit requirement
EPA will require this as of Oct. 15, 2013.
Prohibit open pits and land farming and require closed-loop fluid systems 
Flower Mound, Southlake, Hurst, Dish, Grand Prairie, Grapevine
Require green completions (reduced emissions completions (RECs)) and prohibit flaring
Flower Mound, Southlake, Hurst, Dish. EPA will require RECs as of Jan. 1, 2015
Require remote foam lines on tank batteries
Original Denton ordinance; many cities
Require low toxicity drilling fluids
Grand Prairie, Southlake
Require water recycling where applicable
Task Force
Require no-bleed or low-bleed pneumatic valves
Devon, Chesapeake, EPA STAR best practice
Require pre and post drilling air, water, and soil monitoring
Task Force, Hurst, Dish, Flower Mound
Establish a pad site upgrade incentive program
Task Force
Prohibit glycol dehydrators, require dessicant dehydrators or better environmental performer
EPA STAR best practice
Require methane capture when transferring condensate into tank trucks
EPA STAR best practice
Prohibit compressor stations
Task Force, Bedford, Southlake
Require excess flow valves
EPA STAR best practice
Require plunger lift system
EPA STAR best practice
Expand best practices to minimize sediment runoff
Task Force
Require waste management plan
Clarify enforcement penalties for noncompliance
Task Force, Denton Development Code, Flower Mound
Strengthen emergency action plan
Task Force, Southlake
Strengthen blow out preventer requirement
Post inspection results on the City website
Task Force
Establish timeline for compliance of unpermitted wells
Task Force

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Clean Air: Too Expensive?!

The current draft ordinance for the City of Denton follows existing TAC requirements allowing any "facility" (defined as a device, such as a storage tank) to emit up to 25 tons per year of VOCs.

To me, that is unacceptable.

Well, it turns out the EPA agrees. There is a new source performance standard that went into effect five days ago. Operators have a year to get into compliance. Here is the key part:

"Storage vessels. Individual storage vessels in the oil and natural gas production segment and the natural gas processing, transmission and storage segments with emissions equal to or greater than 6 tons per year (tpy) must achieve at least 95.0 percent reduction in VOC emissions."

Now, most operators will try to come into compliance with this rule by flaring. But we are not going to allow flaring in Denton. At least, I hope City Council prohibits it...

So, they will have to find another path to reduce their emissions. Now one way - and it is complex (there is no magic bullet here) - is vapor recovery units.

I have been doing some digging around on VRUs - here are some things I have been told by engineers who design and manufacture such systems. They can work on tanks with very low pressures. There are a variety of types of systems - including Ejector Vapor Recovery Units. When done right, then need not entail any safety hazards. We need to make sure any units that are installed are not just hood ornaments but are actually doing their job.

And check out the requirements made by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment for the Front Range Ozone Non-Attainment Area:

"90 percent Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) control requirement for the summertime ozone season beginning May 1 2011 (May 1 - September 30). 70 percent Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) control requirement for the remainder of the year."

That is regardless of total emissions - no matter what the level, when it is summertime, you have to control 90% of your emissions. Now, why can't we get protection like that?

So, I was asking myself: Do we have to live with 25 tons per year? Is that the best we can do?

I wondered: Is this an economic constraint (too expensive to recover gasses at lower pressures)? A technological constraint (just not possible to recover such gasses)? Or is it a political constraint (there are no rules in place to force industry to do it)?

Turns out it is not a technological constraint - we can do it. It is not a political constraint - EPA is mandating it. And Colorado also shows ways to do it. So, it may come down to economics - but if it is too expensive with the new rules, then so be it. That just means we have been getting cheap gas by offloading or externalizing those costs into the lungs of the people living on the shale patch. It's time to stop doing that.

We had "experts" take 6 months to write our draft ordinance. Why is there no mention of this new EPA requirement? Why no mention of alternative VRU technologies?

I am glad that the EPA is on our side. Let's make sure our ordinance echoes this new requirement and incentivizes clean technologies and best practices. If we have to live with gas, let's make it compatible with breathing clean air.

Additional note: The Gas Well Inspection Division in Denton says it is tracking 455 active wells in Denton. IF we assume only one tank per well (which is probably low) and we assume 25 tons per year per tank (which is probably high), then that gives us: 11,375 tons of VOCs per year. Now, I don't think anyone knows how much is actually being emitted (which is a big part of the problem - we run a social/environmental/health experiment and don't monitor it). But the point is that that outrageous number is perfectly legal under our current rules.

Monday, October 15, 2012

DAG, Hope, and an Ordinance for the People

I appreciate this thoughtful blog from Denton City Council member Kevin Roden. I agree that there is plenty of reason yet for us to be hopeful that Denton will enact a strong drilling and production ordinance.

DAG is busy now preparing an ordinance of the people, by the people, and for the people. Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

DRC Guest Column: Ordinance needs balance

I have a Guest Column in today's Denton Record Chronicle (complete with a really bad pic of me!). Here it is:

Denton has entered the homestretch in the marathon reform of its natural gas drilling and production ordinance. On Sept. 11, the City Council approved a second extension of the moratorium and unveiled a timeline leading to adoption of the final ordinance in December.

It all began with the release of the draft ordinance at a meeting of the gas well task force on Oct. 1. The draft will remain online for public comment until Friday. This comes after a long “scientific and legal review” conducted by city staff and consultants.

Indeed, since the last task force meeting on March 26, the process of drafting a new ordinance has been sequestered behind a veil of technical expertise.

Until now, even City Council members had not had a peek behind the curtain. Yet, during the City Council meeting on May 8, our elected officials requested a process that would be more iterative and transparent.
They wanted to see what the scientific and legal experts made of minority recommendations that were not passed by the task force. They wanted a council work session on such alternative proposals.

They also wanted to see a comparative report of other city ordinances and a summary of the legal landscape detailing lawsuits faced by other municipalities.

And they made clear that these steps should happen prior to the release of a draft ordinance.
None of this happened. In the May 8 meeting, Mayor Mark Burroughs said that for staff to present a finalized legal document would be “a waste of a lot of resources” and that the ordinance must be in a “developmental stage” if public input was to be effective.

Yet, the ordinance released is far beyond a developmental stage.

This gives me a sinking feeling that over the past six months the expert review process has outrun the democratic process.

My concern is that this draft has become a juggernaut with so much momentum provided by the force of scientific and legal expertise that democratic deliberation will be bowled over. Any ideas the public may have will not fit with the current framing and will derail the process.

The train has left the station and is chugging down the tracks.

There is a culture clash between council and staff that reflects the Janus-face of the ordinance. On one hand, it is a technical document that must satisfy complex legal standards. This requires expert crafting.
On the other hand, it is a political document that expresses community values.This requires democratic deliberation.

What makes this balancing act so challenging is that there is no clear line between the technical realm of expertise and the values realm of the public sphere.

Yet the expert-review process has presumed just such a strict dividing line. The assumption is that the experts are taking the values expressed at task force and council meetings and packaging them into technical language.

This packaging is seen as a neutral act that leaves the values untouched. If that is the case, then the public can now passively await the technical translation of their values deliberations.

But things are messier than that.

First, the values are contested with remaining disagreements about how to prioritize basic goods and goals.
Second, the technical review process necessarily included only a limited subset of experts. But there is disagreement among the experts when it comes to shale gas development and its regulation by municipalities.
Third, even when there is consensus on a general idea, it is not possible to remain value-neutral when writing technical language. The final wording will inevitably give the idea a certain valence.

The new draft ordinance illustrates this last point. The gas well task force unanimously approved the idea of “vapor recovery units.” This shows up in the new draft as follows: “Vapor recovery equipment is required for facilities not included under Rule§106.352 of TAC Title 30, Part 1, Chapter 106, Subchapter O; or its successor regulation.”

This rule of the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) allows a gas site to emit up to 250 tons per year (tpy) of nitrogen oxides (NOX ) or carbon monoxide (CO); 15 tpy of particulate matter with less than 10 microns (PM10); 10 tpy of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5); and 25 tpy of volatile organic compounds (VOC), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

My reading of this is that vapor recovery units will only be required for wells that exceed these emission levels. This means we can still have wells that emit 135 pounds of VOCs every day. That is certainly one way to write up the technical language for the general idea of including vapor recovery units. But I don’t think it is what most residents had in mind.

This shows how over the past six months, as resident involvement has been forced into hibernation, values judgments were being made and built into the ordinance. But this happened behind closed doors and was masked as a neutral, value-free operation.

It may not be too late to restore democratic legitimacy and genuine public involvement. But doing so will require seeing the draft ordinance for what it is — a document that retains contingencies that could legitimately be altered.

We need to be wary of any pretense that this draft, because vetted by experts, represents the “one best way” for Denton to regulate fracking.

ADAM BRIGGLE is Faculty Fellow in the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity and chairman of the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Top 5 Reasons Why the Draft Ordinance is a Dud

More than two years after the Rayzor Ranch wells opened our eyes to our broken ordinance, we now have a band-aid for it. I appreciate the hard work by citizens, Council, Staff, Task Force members, and experts. But somehow we have all failed to put together a set of rules that protects health, safety, and welfare. It’s not too late to fix this. There are two steps involved: a.) point out remaining inadequacies; and b.) propose alternatives to remedy the shortcomings.
DAG is going to over-track the ordinance to accomplish the second objective. Let me here just point out some of the most glaring shortcomings. This is only a selection. It sticks to Task Force recommendations and shows how even those are not adequately reflected in the draft. This does not even mention all the other viable ideas out there (many currently in ordinances from other cities) that are not in the draft ordinance.
1.      Vapor recovery units (VRUs): This was a DAG and Task Force recommendation. It has found its way into the ordinance but VRUs will only be installed on wells emitting more than 137 pounds of VOCs and other pollutants daily. That will not cut it.
2.      Green completions: This was a DAG and Task Force recommendation but it is nowhere to be found in the draft. The draft prohibits venting and flaring EXCEPT when allowed by the RRC or TCEQ or when a variance applies. This is a running mantra in the draft – Exceptions, Exemptions, Variances, Loopholes, Caveats. Let’s put some spine into our City laws.
3.      Compressor stations: DAG recommended banning them from the City (or at least zone them industrial). The Task Force recommended “regulating” them. The ordinance is silent on this matter. Actually, it’s worse: an over-tracked comment suggests that there is a line addressing this item, but that is misleading. The line actually refers to lift compressors and those are not the same thing.
4.      Private water well testing: DAG and the Task Force recommended this. The ordinance is silent, again. Are you starting to detect a pattern here?
5.      Closed loop systems: DAG recommended closed loop systems and no open pits. The Task Force recommended closed loop systems. The draft only requires closed loop MUD systems and still allows many different kinds of open pits.
It is starting to feel like wool is slipping over our eyes. Let’s stay alert. There is much yet to be done.

Draft ordinance needs overhaul

Last night, about forty dedicated citizens gathered to review the draft gas drilling ordinance and generate ideas for how to improve it.

There was one clear take home message: The draft ordinance is inadequate. It gets an F. We need to do better. Our City Council needs to know that we can do better and we need to show them how.

The draft does not sufficiently take into account even the official Gas Well Task Force recommendations, let alone other recommendations from DAG or the minority report. It also fails to adopt many of the proven ideas from better ordinances on the Barnett Shale such as Southlake, Grand Prairie, and Flower Mound. It is a weak document - at so many places it takes a bare minimum approach, giving the apperance of genuine change without much by way of actual substance there. The public has ten days to digest a 42-page document of dense legalese (that is only in English).

Here is my power point presentation. It gives six key examples to show how the draft ordinance fails to account for citizen demands and fails to protect health, safety, and welfare.

Here is the handout comparing existing language in the ordinance with the new draft language. It lets you see the many ways in which the language is a watered down version of original citizen intent.

And here are the results of Gas Well Task Force approved action items. It shows that in many cases even Task Force ideas (which were far from a comprehensive or creative picture of what the ordinance can be) were not included.

It is time to go back to the drawing board. DAG will be doing so. Look for us to issue an alternative ordinance to City Council and Planning and Zoning - hopefully by November 1st.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Ordinance has Missing Pieces

The Gas Well Task Force, despite the best efforts of some of its members, was insufficiently creative. They did not do enough to generate new ideas to modernize Denton’s drilling and production ordinance. A majority bloc on the Task Force did not want more regulations. They offered little of their own ideas and attacked and stonewalled those presented by others. What I called an ‘uneasy alliance' around the general idea of ‘best practices’ fell apart.
Once the public phase of the Task Force’s work was completed in March, the ensuing legal and scientific review was not going to add anything new. Its job was to inquire into the ‘defensibility’ of whatever stock of ideas the voting members of the Task Force advanced.

This lack of creativity is evident in the draft ordinance. Much has been left out. The DAG is currently compiling a list of missing pieces, drawing from many sources, including the original DAG report from December, 2011 and the minority report from Ms. Oppenheim and Dr. La Point.
There is another crucial source that never received a mention by the Task Force. It is the EPA’s Natural Gas Star Program, which outlines dozens of “Recommended Technologies and Best Practices” for capturing methane and other emissions. 

Why was there no discussion of mandating these practices and technologies? This is especially troubling given the real possibility here for common ground -- they are, after all, already recognized by the industry as potential money-saving tactics. These are practices that all promise quick returns on investment due to their ability to capture methane (i.e., money) that would otherwise be vented and lost. Had Task Force members considered these best practices, they might have created more ideas capable of advancing common interests.

Here are just ten ideas from that site:

·         Replace wet seals with dry seals in centrifugal compressors (to reduce leaks)

·         Use zero emissions dehydrators  (to capture gas normally emitted)

·         Install flash tank separators in glycol dehydrators (to capture gas normally emitted)

·         Convert pneumatics to mechanical controls (to prevent leaks)

·         Recover gas during condensate loading (to prevent losses when loading trucks)

·         Install pressurized storage of condensate (to prevent flashing of methane, VOCs, and HAPS)

·         Install excess flow valves (to shut off gas in case of pipeline break)

·         Connect vapor recovery units to casing where there is casinghead gas (to capture gas in annular space between casing and tubing)

·         Install plunger lift systems (to reduce emissions during operations to remove liquids that have reduced the flow of gas – an alternative to traditional ways of blowing down the well)

·         Utilize reduced emission completions (RECs) or green completions for new wells and workovers (capturing emissions and fluids that initially flow at such high rates/volumes that standard equipment cannot capture it – so typically vented, dumped into pit, flared).

From what I have seen thus far, it looks like only the last of these is included in the new ordinance (see That is an important step, for sure, but clearly more could have been done to incorporate ideas from this list into Denton’s ordinance.

This further confirms for me that we need to subject the ordinance to greater scrutiny – including an alternative expert review process. Our citizens and elected leaders need to know what the range of possible alternatives is for regulating shale gas development. So far, our official advisory process has not been up to that task.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Draft Dodge

Last night, the Gas Well Task Force held a public meeting for no apparent reason. It was supposed to be the grand unveiling of the draft ordinance that has spent the past six months in a cocoon of expert review (making it 'scientifically and legally defensible'). But the draft never emerged. Just when the presentation was about to cover the new ordinance it was cut short. The members of the Task Force sat there looking gloomy and dazed. Ed Ireland pointed out that, in fact, the Task Force is now essentially defunct. It will not be debating the new ordinance or offering new ideas. So, now we were at a meeting of a zombie group to discuss nothing in particular.

And at that point - once it was clear that we would not be told anything about the new ordinance and once we understood that this Task Force is moribund - we were asked for our thoughts. It was surreal. It was also indicative of the way citizen input is conceived in this process: a non-essential tack-on of emotional irrelevance. Citizen input is like releasing a steam pressure valve once in a while: you do it not for reasons of productivity but simply to keep things from boiling over. And having no information on which to comment, the public played that role nicely. We did all we could, which was to essentially to let out a collective "Ugh?!"

But here is what I should have said with my three minutes:

Thank you Staff and members of the Task Force for at least trying to democratize the crafting of a highly technical document. Tonight illustrates the main problem with this experiment. Citizen involvement has been kept to the margins - some at the beginning and some at the end. But in the middle is the hard kernel of expert review that was kept hidden from sight. The process is too linear and compartmentalized. It separates the 'lay' citizens with their 'concepts' from the 'experts' with their technical 'language.' But in reality the language is the stuff of politics - it is where values take concrete form. So, the walled-off technical review has been a secret space where values choices were made without any form of democratic legitimization, deliberation, or justification.

A more productive approach would be a dialogical one that crosses and blurs the expert/lay borders - one that educates citizens such that they are capable of understanding and challenging the frames and assumptions brought to bear by the experts. We needed a process that is entirely out in the open, not one that does the real work behind the scenes. There are methods for this citizen-stakeholder-expert dialogue, such as consensus conferences. They take planning, but they can be done.

It is too late now in this process to re-invent it. But how about this for the Oct. 22nd meeting -- we allocate the entire two hours to a structured dialogue. We hold it at the civic center where we can all sit at the same level. We get all members of the Task Force (including the non-voting, behind-the-scenes experts) to join. We first give citizens 15 minutes to organize. They form groups around key themes/questions/ideas. These groups then get about 10 minutes (depending on attendance) to enter into a conversation with the Task Force about their theme. They can pose a question and get a reply and make a rebuttal, etc.

This treats citizens as at least potentially productive parts of the process and helps us to democratize expertise by forcing some justification for ordinance provisions and omissions.