Dallas adopts strict drilling rules for its slice of Barnett Shale

DALLAS -- The City Council here approved one of the most restrictive gas-drilling ordinances in the state, capping a debate that has stretched nearly five years.

The ordinance, which includes a 1,500-foot setback between the edge of gas-drilling pads and the property lines of nearby homes and businesses, positions Dallas closer to cities like Boulder, Colo. It's a big contrast to Dallas' neighboring cities, which have allowed urban drilling for about a decade.

"If they go with 1,500-foot setbacks, that is effectively banning drilling," Ed Ireland of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a trade group, said in an interview before the vote.

The City Council voted 9-6 to approve the setback and other restrictions, including disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, sampling of air and water before drilling starts, and restricting compressor stations to industrial areas.

Some council members wanted to reduce the setback to 1,000 feet, saying it would allow development of privately owned minerals in Dallas. The city has indirectly benefited from the gas drilling boom in Texas because it co-owns Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, where gas wells are within sight of the runways.


"It is illogical and unreasonable to attempt to disallow gas drilling in Dallas, and I believe that's what this motion does," Councilwoman Vonciel Jones Hill said during debate over the ordinance.

The majority sided with neighborhood activists and environmentalists who opposed drilling.

"This is about making sure people are protected in their neighborhood," Councilwoman Carolyn Davis said.

Dallas sits on the eastern edge of the Barnett Shale, the first gas-bearing formation to be unlocked with new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Starting in the late 1990s, Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. and other companies developed a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to open up the Barnett, a layer of rock about 5,000 feet below ground. Fort Worth, a city of more than 700,000 about 35 miles west of Dallas, saw a rush of shale drilling from 2005 to 2008, when rising gas prices made it economical to drill in urban areas.

The boom turned the counties around Fort Worth into the biggest gas-producing area of the state. It came at a price, though -- residents routinely complained about dust, noise, truck traffic and air pollution.

Fort Worth allows drilling within 600 feet of homes and can vary the setback to 300 feet. Most suburban cities around Dallas and Fort Worth have similar rules, though a few have 1,000- or 1,500-foot setbacks.

Residents began organizing to keep drilling out of Dallas in 2008, about the time XTO Energy Inc. paid the city $14 million for the mineral rights beneath city-owned property. Another company, Trinity East, paid Dallas $19 million for additional leases.

Ed and Claudia Meyer found out about XTO's plans to drill in southwest Dallas from a neighbor, and they attended a neighborhood meeting.

Claudia Meyer, a retired medical social worker, said she became concerned about the health effects of drilling, both from chemicals used in drilling and from emissions released at drill sites and compressor stations. A 2011 study in Fort Worth found five sites that exceeded state-recommended emissions levels, and investigators found benzene, formaldehyde and other chemicals in the air near well pads and compressor sites.

"These highly toxic industries do not belong in a city of a million people," Ed Meyer said. "We're not against drilling totally, it just needs to be in the right place."

Under pressure from the Meyers and a coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups, Dallas formed a task force to recommend changes to its drilling ordinance. The task force recommended a 1,000-foot setback between wells and nearby homes and business.

Meanwhile, the city delayed approving site plans for drilling pads. XTO eventually walked away from its leases with the city. Trinity East still has leases with the city, but the City Plan Commission turned down its request for drilling sites in August.

In September, the Plan Commission adopted the 1,500-foot setback and added more restrictions on drilling than the citizens' task force had recommended.

It's unclear how much gas might be produced if any wells are ever drilled in Dallas. Ireland, with the Barnett Shale trade group, said the formation only extends under the western fringe of Dallas and is broken up by faults. But parts of it are twice as thick as the shale beneath Fort Worth, which could make it economical to drill in some parts of Dallas if gas prices recover, he said.

The Meyers say they'll be watching if anyone ever tries to change the Dallas ordinance.

"Every time we see an amendment come up, we're going to do something," Ed Meyer said.

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