Drilling Divides Fort Worth

Photo: Land Grab: Clean Energy Movement Can Leave Communities Divided: Natural Gas Exploration Brings Economic Boost and Environmental Concerns

Earlier this month, in a remote area about 40 miles south of Fort Worth, Texas, a contractor accidentally struck an underground natural gas pipeline. It exploded, sending a ball of fire hundreds of feet into the air, killing the worker.

The next day, another gas pipeline exploded in a desolate stretch along the Texas panhandle near the Oklahoma border – another accidental rupture, two more people dead.

With the BP oil disaster in the Gulf dominating headlines, two pipeline explosions in as many days didn't get much national attention. Even in Texas, where drilling is as ubiquitous as ten-gallon hats and Friday night football, the explosions didn't cause a big stir.

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But these events were not overlooked by Laura Reeves and other residents of an affluent, heavily populated section of Fort Worth known as Ridglea.

Drill, Baby, Drill

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy plans to drill for natural gas in Ridglea, on a site known as Westridge. It's less than 1,000 feet from hundreds of homes, a school, a daycare center and a country club. The Chesapeake plan calls for four initial wells, and up to 20 more after that, as well as a large pipeline. Reeves and some of her neighbors are rattled, and ready for a fight.

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"Just think if a pipeline explosion had happened here," Reeves said. "How many lives would have been lost? These oil and gas companies keep saying that these things are rare, these things don't normally happen, can't happen. But the truth is they do happen."

Reeves and various civic groups, such as Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Operations (FWCANDO), insist that natural gas wells simply have no place in residential areas. But their voices represent the minority view in Fort Worth. Here, and across Texas, there is generally little opposition to oil and gas drilling. Most people in the Fort Worth area welcome it, and the billions of dollars of wealth are piped into the region as a result.

'It'll Take a Tragedy'

"I'd say only about ten percent of the population are opposed to drilling," said state Representative Lon Burnam, who represents a large section of Fort Worth. Rep. Burnam has been pushing the city council to put a moratorium on any new drilling until air quality issues can be better understood, and more stringent safety regulations put in place.

Burnam, like Reeves, admits that opposing drilling in Texas can be like opposing trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. "The oil and gas industry completely controls the state, calls all the shots and that's just the way it is," Rep. Burnam sighed. "Sadly, it'll take a tragedy for someone to wake up and put a halt to drilling in residential communities."

That heavily populated sections of Fort Worth could become host to so many gas wells is not too surprising considering the state's historic ties to, and acceptance of, drilling. And, of course, there's the money at stake.

Since 2004, when a vast deposit of natural gas in the Barnett Shale, on which Fort Worth sits, became more accessible because of new horizontal drilling technology, Chesapeake has drilled around 2,000 wells there. Permits for around 14,000 wells are believed to have been granted on the shale in North Texas. There are around 1,300 wells operating just in the Fort Worth city limits -- about one quarter of which are operated by Chesapeake. Before 2005, there were none. It's an economic boom fueled by the shale play and the push for alternative energy sources beyond petroleum. The state of Texas now generates 40 percent of its electricity using natural gas, viewed as cleaner-burning and less harmful to the atmosphere than coal.

Billions at Stake

With Chesapeake alone shelling out north of $10 billion dollars on land leases, permitting fes, and royalty deals in the past few years, there's usually little resistance to their agenda. It's one that represents jobs. The gas drilling industry has created some 53,000 jobs in the past decade, and that's just in the Fort Worth area, according to a study by the Texas Workforce Commission.

In Ridglea, though, the tide may be turning. About two dozen homes sit within 600 feet of the proposed drilling, or pad site, said Dan Tartaglia, an attorney who lives nearby and who is spearheading opposition to the site. In order to get permission to drill in a "high-impact" zone, Chesapeake needs waivers from a majority of the homeowners within 600 feet. Only four residents have signed permission waivers, Tartaglia said. Even if Chesapeake doesn't get all the necessary waivers, the city can still grant them permission to drill in Ridglea, via a high-impact waiver. A hearing on proposed drilling in Ridglea is set for July 13.

Showdown is Set

"If the people who are directly affected oppose this, and come out in force, then I believe the city council will have no choice but to do the right thing and oppose this drilling site," Tartaglia said.

But the nine-member Fort Worth city council has in the past few years granted dozens of requests from energy companies to drill in residential areas. "I only know of one high-impact waiver request that was ever denied," said Don Young, founder of FWCANDO. "They hand these out every week."

At least one councilman is an oil and gas attorney, Young said. "The others have been lobbied to death and/or bought off," he said.

Chesapeake expects to have a majority of the necessary waivers and all of its paperwork in place in time for the hearing, and is hopeful that a drilling permit will be obtained, said Leah King, the company's senior director of public affairs. She pointed out that residents and business owners, around 6,400 in all, stand to receieve upwards of $60 million in royalty payments just from the Ridglea site, though spread out over at least 20 years.

King, a Fort Worth resident who says she herself lives 300 feet from a well site, strongly resents any implication that Chesapeake puts profit over safety and environmental concerns. "The perception that energy companies don't care about the environment, or safety, is just flat wrong," she says. "The idea we'd put a little extra profit ahead of possibly harming people or causing harm to the environment is, to me, unfathomable."

But why even drill near any residential homes, ever? Because that's where the resources are, King said. The Barnett Shale covers two dozen counties across Texas but the sweet spot is in Tarrant County, just below Fort Worth and its population of around 650,000, which is spread across 300 square miles. Fort Worth's mayor, Mike Moncrief, has been riding a wave of popularity in recent years because he has supported drilling -- and it has made a lot of his constituents wealthy.

"But even Moncrief now sees the need to take a step back and study the issues," Rep. Burnam said. "More people are starting to push back.

To that end, Moncrief, who could not be reached for comment, has established an independent committee to study air quality issues, specifically concerns that cancer causing toxins are being emitted at unacceptable levels. "The mayor is committed to addressing air quality concerns," Jason Lamers, a city spokesman said.

Stacked Deck

Reeves says she doesn't buy it. Official tasks forces to study drilling impact issues have been filled with representatives from the oil and gas industry in the past, and nothing resembling opposition has ever resulted. "The deck is stacked," she said.

As far as possible pipeline accidents are concerned, Chesapeake did not operate the ones that exploded. The explosion closest to Fort Worth was run by Enterprise Products Partners. It was a 36-inch pipe, running nearly 400 miles. This type of gas line is a high-pressure, high-volume transmission line, and not the type of pipeline that would accompany the typical well operation, Chesapeake's King said. She stressed that opponents to drilling, people like Reeves, are in the minority. A survey Chesapeake commissioned in February found that 66 percent of Tarrant County residents who live near a drilling site had a "positive impression."

Bobbie McCurdy, a 37-year-old mother of two young children who lives a few hundred feet from the proposed site, is not among those with a positive impression of drilling. She admits signing a lease agreement with Chesapeake a few years ago and, this past March, signed a waiver allowing Chesapeake to drill.

Now, she has regrets.

"I was drinking the Kool-Aid like a lot of people, but now that I've done the research and learned more about the health and environmental hazards involved ... I'm terrified," she said.

And if the drilling is approved?

"We'll move," she says, without hestitation.

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