Monday, December 31, 2012

Occupy the Ordinance

This is an interactive post! Be ready to do your homework and submit your questions!
The City of Denton has just posted its draft fracking ordinance in a new, convenient searchable format! Of course, that is the only thing that is user-friendly about this dense thicket of legalese. You will find it is 112 pages long – but don’t worry it is actually two versions of the ordinance. The first 62 pages are over-tracked with changes from the last version (round 4, was it?). The (relatively) clean draft begins on page 63 if you want to skip there.  
Breathe easy – only 62 pages of homework!
So will this ordinance protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people of Denton? That’s for you to decide.
But I imagine that you could use some help deciphering what the ordinance actually means in terms of protecting citizens. That is why DAG is requesting that the City of Denton partner with it in sponsoring an educational event.
The premise is very simple. 1. We, the people, identify our remaining questions about the ordinance (both about what is in there and about what has been left out). 2. We submit those in advance to knowledgeable members of City Staff. 3. We all attend a presentation where those questions are answered for us – and hopefully we engage in a bit of respectful dialogue.
I think I speak for most members of DAG when I say: I will not endorse this ordinance until I get satisfactory answers to our remaining questions. The process has been bungled - not democracy at its best - so I think we are owed this chance to understand how this industrial activity will impact our community in the future. I know they don’t need my endorsement – but as one of our engaged and educated citizens (call me a fracktivist if you want J), I sure hope they try to get it. As I said in a recent publication – I’m not sure what the rules would look like for ‘responsible fracking’ – they may not even exist. But I am sure, despite making some good progress, that we haven’t crafted them yet.
OK – I warned you – now it is time for you to dig into the ordinance and submit your questions! Please use the comment function on the blog or add to the Facebook string. Let me prime the pump with a list of questions that some members of DAG have already put together. (Some of these are listed in our most recent report). If you agree with some of these, please also indicate that --- that way we know which ones seem to be most pressing:
1.      Why can’t we increase set back distances to 1,500 feet as Flower Mound did? 35.22.5.A.1

2.      Why have we not followed the lead of other cities and prohibited compressor stations?

3.      Why can’t we use a three-tiered zoning strategy for fracking: permit drilling by right in industrial areas, via an SUP in commercial areas, and prohibit drilling in residential areas?

4.      To limit vested rights claims, can we set an expiration timeline for projects (not just permits) so that projects are not perpetually considered ongoing?

5.      Following on that point, which activities will this new ordinance actually apply to?

6.      Why can’t we eliminate variances (reductions of setbacks between wells and protected uses) altogether or at least make sure they are designed to protect inhabitants of rental properties? 35.22.5.A.1

7.      Why can’t we eliminate all pits that would contain anything but freshwater?

8.      Why can’t we simply ban fracking?

9.      Why can’t we require low-bleed valves and other industry-recognized best practices catalogued in the EPA-STAR natural gas program?

10.  On p. 17 of the over-tracked version: What are vapor recovery units? Why are they only required under certain circumstances and what are those circumstances?

11.  On p. 17: Regarding reduced emissions completions, what does it mean to be infeasible, who determines that? Can we be sure that all vapors (and not just the recovered gas) are captured and prevented from release? What does it mean to ‘minimize’ release to the atmosphere – what standard is applied here?

12.  On p. 20: Why can’t we simply prohibit venting and flaring outright? When is it allowed by RRC and TCEQ?

13.  On p. 20, What are centralized tank batteries? What hazards do they present? Are they necessary?

14.  Air and water monitoring requirements – why are these not spelled out in the same detail as the soil sampling requirements? Have you looked at the example provided by Hurst?

15.  On pp. 34-35: Why was the leak detection and compliance plan removed? How can we be sure we are monitoring, measuring, preventing, and responding to emissions of harmful chemicals?

16.  On pp. 35-36:  Why were the freshwater well testing requirements removed? How can we be sure that we are protecting our aquifers and watersheds?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Injustice of the 1,000 Foot Setback

Denton’s leaders are debating whether to increase the setback distance between wells and protected uses (homes, schools, etc.) from 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet. Some are asking: What is gained from the additional 500 feet in terms of protection?
We could look for studies on impacts to health and property values in an attempt to answer this question. But I question the question itself. We don’t know what is gained from the extra 500 feet, but we also don't know what is lost by not having the extra 500 feet. The question puts the burden of proof on those who are advocating for 1,500 feet. But arguably the burden should be on those who support 1,000 feet. After all, this number was arrived at through political compromise and policy diffusion. It is not like we have proof that 1,000 feet is sufficient. Both numbers are arbitrary. So why are we asking proof of the efficacy of 1,500 feet that we are not asking of 1,000 feet? It can only be because it is politically expedient, that is, we feel comfortably safe from lawsuits.
For Council, it is a question of how to act under uncertainty. I think they ought to buy more assurance for our top priority of public health…at least until we have a better understanding of how setbacks correlate to public health.  
Setbacks establish the ceiling. There is a variance procedure by which those living nearest to a proposed well site can voluntarily opt for shorter setback distances. This is a way to respect citizens' informed consent. If those most vulnerable to this industrial activity want to knowingly bear greater risks for potentially greater rewards, then they should have that right. (Of course identifying who should count as ‘the most vulnerable’ is the sticking point.)
But there is no procedure for surrounding residents to INCREASE the setback distance. This asymmetry needs to be made visible. The setback in the ordinance establishes the maximum distance allowed. Those who would like to voluntarily opt for larger setbacks will not have that option, whereas those who want shorter setbacks do.
Arguably, the City should establish a one mile setback and allow its residents the power to negotiate with one another and with operators for distances less than that. Maybe that is not feasible, but it is more just than what we currently have where the City sets the bar and allows citizens to lower it but not raise it. This is why 1,500 feet is hardly radical. It is only a minor move in the right direction.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Pauline's Plea for a Stronger Ordinance

City Council voted to extend the moratorium into late February. They cast their votes just after 11 p.m. (after an intense discussion on the smoking ordinance), which was less than an hour before the moratorium was set to expire.

This is a victory of sorts, but we need to use the remaining time wisely to push for improvements, because I think the next decision will be the final vote rather than another delay.

There were several great remarks to the Council, including a creative interpretation of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" that featured a greedy corporate grinch despoiling Denton until he has an epiphany, goes green, and puts up solar panels (I think that is how it went - but I need to get my own copy so I can get the story right).

But I thought the best comments came from Pauline Raffestin - especially because she reminds us that we are working for our kids and for the future generations of Denton. Below, I have pasted her words with her permission. Thank you, Pauline, for sticking it out through this process - your voice is so important. And thank you to everyone else in Denton who has remained engaged. (A special shout out to Cathy and Sharon who went all the way to Austin to tell the Railroad Commission to start doing their job.)

Good evening,

My name is Pauline Raffestin. My husband and I have a 5 year-old son.

I am here tonight to urge City Council not to adopt the proposed version of the ordinance relating to Gas Well Drilling and Production and to extend the moratorium. For the last couple of years, I have attended many meetings on the topic of the ordinance re-writing: information meetings organized by the DAG, planning & zoning meetings, task force meetings, the mayoral candidate debate on the topic, the moratorium vote… A lot of the material discussed at those meetings was dry, technical, and often discouraging… not the kind of stuff citizens enjoy spending their personal time learning and talking about. But, like many, I am glad I attended these meetings, because now I have an informed opinion on the matter. And my opinion is that this ordinance is insufficient. It does not take into account many of the recommendations made along the way, and it does not provide Denton citizens with the same level of protection as ordinances in other cities on the Barnett Shale and in other parts of the country. Isn’t feeling safe and healthy in your own city a reasonable expectation to have?

Now, I really like Denton and I’d like to feel comfortable staying here. However, the things that make Denton appealing--its music scene, its many family-friendly events, its Jazz Fest, its Holiday Lighting Festival, and its creative community—all these things will be meaningless the moment our children start getting sick because of the air they breathe or the water they drink. As a matter of fact, children are already getting sick (I can’t keep track of the number of children with asthma and other respiratory issues in my son’s school, not to mention the cases of childhood leukemia, which we now know can be caused by exposure to benzene, a by-product of gas-drilling.) Denton likes to fancy itself a green city (with solar trash cans on the square, 40% of our electricity coming from renewable energy, a great recycling program…), so now is the time to show that the city really cares about the environment and the health of its citizens by imposing stronger regulations on the gas-drilling industry. This industry is inconspicuous by nature. I am convinced that more people would come to these meetings if only they realized that gas drilling is happening within their city limits. Lots of people think that drilling is only happening where wells can be seen. They don’t know about all the underground activity, the emissions near compressor stations, the land-farming practices, etc. Some know, but they’re in denial. It’s hard to accept the fact that your family might be exposed to harmful chemicals on a daily basis, while you feed them organic food and strive to give them the best start in life. On behalf of the many parents of young children in Denton who are justifiably concerned, I ask you to please demand that a better ordinance be drafted and to extend the moratorium until then. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Work Still Needed on Denton's Ordinance

Here are my remarks for City Council tonight.
The draft ordinance is an improvement. I commend City Staff and Council for their efforts. I could see this being ready for approval in a few months. But we are not ready yet, so I urge you to extend the moratorium one more time.
There are two reasons we aren’t ready. First, there are still crucial elements either missing or in need of strengthening. Second, it is unclear how key provisions in the ordinance will perform in terms of protecting health, safety, and welfare.
What’s still missing? Here are some of the most important items:
1.      Increased set backs of 1,500 feet

2.      Prohibition of compressor stations

3.      A three-tiered zoning strategy that would permit drilling by right in industrial areas, via an SUP in commercial areas, and would expressly prohibit drilling in residential areas.

4.      An expiration timeline for projects (not just permits) so that projects are not perpetually considered ongoing and new activities must comply with new rules.

5.      Eliminate variances granted by Zoning Board of Adjustment and amend variances to protect inhabitants of rental properties.

6.      Eliminate all pits that would contain anything but freshwater.
7. Require low-bleed valves and other industry-recognized best practices.

What’s still unclear? Here are some of the most important questions:
1.      On site requirements, n. p. 14: Vapor recovery units – when are these required, what can they do to protect our health?

2.      On site requirements, p. p. 15: Reduced emissions completions – what does it mean to be infeasible, who determines that? Can we be sure that all vapors (and not just the recovered gas) are captured and prevented from release? What does it mean to ‘minimize’ release to the atmosphere – what standard is applied here?

3.      Operations and equipment standards and practices e. p. 16: Why can’t we simply prohibit venting and flaring outright? When is it allowed by RRC and TCEQ?

4.      Storage tanks b. p. 17 – what are centralized tank batteries?

5.      Air and water monitoring requirements – why are these not spelled out in the same detail as the soil sampling requirements? Have you looked at the example provided by Hurst? Why are the freshwater well testing requirements removed? How can we be sure that we are protecting our aquifers and watersheds and how can we be sure we are preventing releases of noxious or nuisance vapors?
To address these remaining issues, DAG would like to invite a panel of knowledgeable City representatives to give a public presentation. We have in mind an educational, detailed explanation and justification of the ordinance so that citizens can better understand what City Council will be voting on. I would be happy to work with you in arranging the logistics. And, while we arrange this meeting, please have the ordinance posted online in a searchable format.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Export or Bust?

The Washington Post blog has a good piece today on the recent DOE report on the possibility of large-scale US exports of natural gas. Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass Liquefication Project in Lousiana has already been approved for exporting liquified natural gas (LNG) and other projects are pending DOE approval. The pending applications represent 60% of current domestic consumption of natural gas. In other words, this could be a major change to the domestic energy market.

The DOE report argues that under all scenarios exporting LNG will bring net economic benefits to the US. The main winners will be gas producers such as Range, Chesapeake, and Devon. Nuclear plants will also benefit as higher gas prices will make their electricity more competitive. I imagine this means coal would do well too. The losers would be domestic chemical industries that will face higher prices here for their feedstock gas. And, of course, all US natural gas consumers will face higher prices...because supply will drop as producers sell their product for higher prices abroad (currently they can get roughly 5x the money on the Japanese market than on the US market).

But there is another wrinkle noted in the Post blog. The big export might not happen at all. It is very expensive to liquify gas. And the global market is uncertain. For large-scale exports to take off lots of pieces would have to fall in place -- continued low domestic prices (it could be we don't have as much natural gas as most are assuming and there are many growing domestic demands for natural gas that may boost prices here), increased demand from Japan (if it retires all nuclear facilities)....and it is possible that China, India, and E. Europe might add their own shale gas resources to the global market...this would quell demand for US gas. This is all hashed out in a recent Brookings Institution report.

As a friend of mine argues, none of this business is concerned with the poor woman down the street who would like to fry her egg for a penny.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Denton and the Road Not Taken

Frustration is mounting with the Denton gas drilling ordinance re-write process. I think a major cause of frustration is a sense of futility. Even if we get some improvements, we will just be rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. This ordinance can do nothing more than put lipstick on a pig. We may get some new screening requirements and maybe even vapor recovery units – but this is all cosmetic. It does not address a deeper-rooted, systemic problem.

How do we label that problem? We may find some guidance from Amory Lovins’ 1976 essay Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken. Lovins contrasts our status-quo “hard” energy technology system (large-scale, centrally-managed, corporate-controlled) with a “soft” path that we could choose – one that is small-scale, tuned to context, and democratically/locally controlled. 

Most prophetic are Lovins’ remarks about the politics of a hard technology system. No ordinance revisions will address these political problems. For those feeling frustrated, it may be precisely this realization: We are trying to democratize a system that is, in its essence, anti-democratic. It only gives us a few crumbs of power – perhaps to post ‘no smoking’ signs on pad sites, maybe to require some tree planting.

But the larger reality is that we are fundamentally disenfranchised. The frustration is that sickening feeling that it is more rational to simply acquiesce – to let the experts figure it out and to play the role of passive consumer enjoying, as Marcuse said, our “smooth, comfortable unfreedom.” Why spend so much time and energy trying to reform a system that does not compute your existence? The problem with natural gas is not this-or-that design flaw -- it is its hardness -- a massive system run by powerful, entrenched interests and managed by bureucrats and technocrats. No ordinance revision will change that reality.

Here is an excerpt from Lovins that I find particularly meaningful in light of Denton’s current situation, especially the ongoing questions about who has been crafting the ordinance (in never-ending closed sessions) and which priorities they represent:  

The hard path, sometimes portrayed as the bastion of free enterprise and free markets, would instead be a world of subsidies, $100-billion bailouts, oligopolies, regulations, nationalization, eminent domain, corporate statism.

While soft technologies can match any settlement pattern, their diversity reflecting our own pluralism, centralized energy sources encourage industrial clustering and urbanization. While soft technologies give everyone the costs and benefits of the energy system he chooses, centralized systems allocate benefits to surburbanites and social costs to politically weaker rural agrarians. Siting big energy systems pits central authority against local autonomy in an increasingly divisive and wasteful form of centrifugal politics...

In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you. Decisions about who shall have how much energy at what price also become centralized—a politically dangerous trend because it divides those who use energy from those who supply and regulate it.

The scale and complexity of centralized grids not only make them politically inaccessible to the poor and weak, but also increase the likelihood and size of malfunctions, mistakes and deliberate disruptions. A small fault or a few discontented people become able to turn off a country…Societies may therefore be tempted to discourage disruption through stringent controls akin to a garrison state. In times of social stress, when grids become a likely target for dissidents, the sector may be paramilitarized and further isolated from grass-roots politics.

Any demanding high technology tends to develop influential and dedicated constituencies of those who link its commercial success with both the public welfare and their own. Such sincerely held beliefs, peer pressures, and the harsh demands that the work itself places on time and energy all tend to discourage such people from acquiring a similarly thorough knowledge of alternative policies and the need to discuss them. Moreover, the money and talent invested in an electrical program tend to give it disproportionate influence in the counsels of government, often directly through staff-swapping between policy- and mission-oriented agencies. This incestuous position, now well developed in most industrial countries, distorts both social and energy priorities in a lasting way that resists political remedy.