Dark and Scary Wells
When the Barnett Shale drilling boom first swam into the public consciousness almost a decade ago, people all over Tarrant County had questions, mostly about how much money property owners could make and how to get the best deal on leasing mineral rights. How big would the windfall for local governments be, and how it should be spent? As the first city in the country to deal with large-scale urban gas drilling, Fort Worth seemed poised to rake in what looked like free money.
But the other questions about this new hydraulic fracturing industry followed quickly on the heels of the first drilling crew: Some neighbors of drilling rigs found the noise unbearable. Processions of big trucks were rolling through neighborhoods and ruining streets. Residents found that the city had no zoning control over where wells could be drilled — one day you lived in a quiet residential neighborhood, and the next day a parade of equipment haulers and crews started arriving, and ugly ponds were dug to hold some sort of smelly sludge or liquid. What was in those ponds? And was all of this going to affect your property values, or make it hard to sell your house?
“The subject is so huge that you don’t know where to start,” said Libby Willis, president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods, which has sponsored studies to try to make sense of some portions of the controversy.
Over and over, the neighbors found little help for those problems, few answers for their questions — if they went to city hall, they were told that the state was responsible for most regulation. One state agency said the other had responsibility and vice versa. If residents complained of noise, inspectors always seemed to show up when the rig was quiet. Residents who complained of headaches, nosebleeds, and sick or dying animals were told the wells weren’t at fault, or at least that no one could prove they were. Or if it was the drilling, well … hadn’t they signed mineral leases, and weren’t they sharing in the profits along with the annoyances?
In Arlington, Kim Feil became a leading voice of dissent. She performed an anti-drilling rap song at an Arlington City Council meeting, showed up at an Environmental Protection Agency meeting in Fort Worth carrying a life-size dummy wearing a gas mask, and was ousted from a city council meeting for speaking out of turn. But along the way she roused residents, went door to door to get signatures for a petition to resist drilling in her neighborhood, and grabbed the attention (and anger) of Arlington city leaders.
She’d already watched how the drillers tap-danced into Fort Worth with lots of promises.
“They never said anything about pipelines and benzene-releasing infra-structure, and how diesel trucks come every day and evacuate water,” she said. “They didn’t say that royalties would decrease about 75 percent after the first few months. It would have raised eyebrows if they had told us our property values would be devalued, or that we’d have 14,000 gas wells in the Barnett Shale and only 12 [Texas] Railroad Commission inspectors.”
Still, for a long time the critics seemed to be just scattered, angry voices, unable to get any traction with the public or the politicians. “It was like we couldn’t wake people up to understand that this would be in their back yard,” Willis said.
Ten years and 1,800 rigs (just in Fort Worth) later, many of the worries are no longer theoretical, even if industry officials still deny the connection. The health problems are real, inadequate monitoring of air pollution has finally gotten the attention of state legislators, and groundwater problems have prompted some drillers to buy out farmers and ranchers whose only source of water was wells drilled into now-tainted aquifers. The EPA has stepped in.
Drilling fluids, whose composition the gas companies have tried to keep secret — and which fill many of those trucks racing around North Texas roads, occasionally spilling their loads or catching on fire — are now known to be full of cancer-causing compounds and other dangerous chemicals. Turns out that one of the key agencies charged with regulating the industry had deemed that watching out for the “public interest” meant watching out for the profitability of the drilling industry itself. And as the hydraulic fracturing technology brings more and more shale fields into production in other states, the cries of alarm that first went up in Texas are being repeated with increasing volume across the country.
But each new revelation, it seems, brings more questions.
“There are so many things wrong that you focus on one and realize there are four or 14 others you haven’t even begun to explore,” said Deborah Rogers, who was awakened to the problem after baby goats and chicks died on her Westworth Village farm while Chesapeake Energy was flaring — burning off waste gases — on a drill site nearby.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram business columnist Mitchell Schnurman wrote recently that “Fort Worth’s experiment in urban drilling can stand as Exhibit A” for a community where “drill baby, drill” has worked. While the industry has “more to do” in protecting the environment, and while opposition remains strong in some areas, he wrote, concerns are easing “as more people get used to the
Esther McElfish, president of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance that is helping local residents make sense of gas drilling, flips that statement on its head.
“We’ve become one big industrial neighborhood,” she said recently. And health problems, lowered property values, dirtier air, and threats to groundwater are the result. Some families have, reluctantly, begun moving away.
Looking at gas drilling from a broad perspective, Willis said, the question sometimes seems like, “Are we so far gone that there’s no hope — or are there glimmers that, if people just hang on and work hard,” they can change enough things to save a decent quality of life?
“Neighborhood people are asking questions they’ve never asked before,” she said.
In 2009, Al Armendariz, a relatively unknown professor at Southern Methodist University, was hired by the Environmental Defense Fund to do a study that sent oil and gas companies and state officials reaching for their pitchforks and torches. The study concluded that natural gas production contributes more to North Texas’s substantial air pollution than all of the automobiles and airports combined. Oil and gas companies countered with industry-sponsored studies that disputed Armendariz’ claim. Needless to say, they were highly unthrilled when Armendariz was appointed EPA regional administrator later that year.
Last August, a study by Jay Oaguer, director of air quality research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, revealed that levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde in North Texas air are more than double that of the Houston Ship Channel. In the study, Oaguer concluded that “state monitoring of [formaldehyde] levels is too sporadic and inaccurate to quantify … exposure and emissions in the Barnett Shale.”
TCEQ toxicologist Shannon Ethridge had come to a similar conclusion a few months earlier. TCEQ tests in the Barnett Shale area had shown “some of the highest benzene concentrations we have monitored in the state,” she said.
Formaldehyde is by no means the only problem. Activists like Rogers and Jim Ashford have paid private labs for independent tests that have shown scary levels of compounds like benzene and carbon disulfide and carbon sulfanyl in the air around their properties.
The fact remains, air quality in Texas ranks among the worst in the country. Tarrant and Dallas are among 21 counties in North Texas whose air, long-term, is dirty enough to violate the Clean Air Act.
Ed Ireland, executive director for the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry-funded public information source, said that political activists are manipulating science to try and stop gas drilling. In an article published in January on the group’s web site, he called Armendariz’ findings an “inaccurate and flawed interpretation of the facts.”
“The data shows that there is no clear relationship between Barnett Shale natural gas production activities and the highest average ozone levels in the DFW area,” he said.
Other people disagree. Longtime North Texas environmental activist Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk has said that Barnett Shale-created pollution is greatly slowly the region’s attempts to clean up its air and avoid the substantial penalties looming if it continues to violate federal clean air standards.
Last March, the Fort Worth City Council appointed a committee to look at how Barnett Shale drilling has affected local air quality. The committee selected Eastern Research Group to conduct a study, and a recent preliminary report showed that at least one well site, near I-30 and Chapel Creek Boulevard in far west Fort Worth, was emitting more than four times the allowed amount of formaldehyde.
A final report with much more detailed information will be released in June — a questionable bit of timing that convinced some residents that city officials are intentionally waiting until after May elections to reveal the test results (and, presumably, to spare incumbents from voters’ anger). City staffers said the delays and cost increases were due to city staffers’ underestimation of how much time it would take consultants to test and gather information on each well site and to analyze the results.
Although Kim Feil’s shrill delivery and over-the-top methods hurt her credibility in some people’s eyes, her fervor is easy to understand. Her 13-year-old son was born with a central nervous system disorder, which Feil attributes to having lived near automotive paint shops and General Motors and being exposed to airborne chemicals while she was pregnant. The Feils now live downwind from gas wells near University of Texas at Arlington, and she believes air emissions from those rigs and others near Bailey Junior High School are causing more health problems for her son.
One of Feil’s neighbors said her own 7-year-old became ill with nosebleeds, vomiting, and difficulty breathing after drilling began nearby and a compressor station was installed. The woman didn’t want her name used — she is trying desperately to sell her house and move away to protect her child’s health, and she doesn’t want to scare off potential buyers.
“We’ve lived here 15 years and never had these problems,” she said. “Something is going on. If somebody will buy my house, I’m gone.”
Sharon Wilson, an organizer for the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project, met with some of the country’s top environmental enforcers recently to talk about health impacts caused by natural gas extraction in the Barnett Shale area. In North Carolina the activist, blogger, and outspoken critic of gas drilling practices presented four case studies to experts in the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards who are working on new rules for the oil and gas industry. She later traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with top EPA officials there.
The four cases she chronicled all illustrate the dangers of breathing the toxic air created by drill sites.
Bob and Lisa Parr and their daughter Emma live in Wise County on property surrounded by 21 gas wells. Shortly after moving to the area, Lisa began experiencing difficulty in breathing, nausea, and head-aches. She developed rashes that have left scars from the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet. Multiple doctors could not find anything physically wrong. She even had a biopsy of the welts on her scalp and the four ping-pong-ball-sized lumps on her neck. Lisa compared her medical records with neighbor Christine Ruggiero’s log of spills, releases, and air testing from the gas wells on their property. Lisa’s medical issues coincided with the oil and gas companies’ activities. Tests detected chemicals in her blood and lungs that matched the results of TCEQ’s air sampling.
Bob Parr had only a few nosebleeds in the first 49 years of his life. But in the last year he has had about three per week. Bob and 7-year-old Emma sometimes have simultaneous nosebleeds. Bob also has begun to experience loss of balance and neurological problems. Emma was recently diagnosed with asthma and suffers rashes and nausea.
After receiving Lisa’s test results, her doctor recommended she leave her home within 48 hours. They are now living in Bob’s office where there is no drilling nearby, and their health has dramatically improved.
Sandra DenBraber, an Arlington resident, lives 600 feet from the University of Texas at Arlington’s Carrizo operations. Medical tests revealed multiple carcinogens in her blood.
In a letter to TCEQ, her doctor said that he believed “her current illness and inability to recover is related to her constant and continual exposure to diesel exhaust fumes and other chemicals associated with the oil and gas drilling and compressor station… .”
TCEQ officials told DenBraber that they plan to use her doctor’s letter as the basis for action — the first time that a doctor’s diagnosis has been used in such a manner. After a two-month investigation, the TCEQ concluded that pollution from that well site is responsible for the deterioration of DenBraber’s health problems. The agency issued a notice of violation against the well operator, Houston-based Carrizo Oil and Gas.
Tim and Christine Ruggiero and their family have experienced several toxic spills from drilling on their land. Drilling has caused what appears to be a methane seep where the bubbles ignite. Several TCEQ studies and private environmental testing found high levels of benzene, among other chemicals, on their property. Ten-year-old Reilly Ruggiero was recently diagnosed with asthma. Christine has experienced rashes, nausea, and memory loss. Tim has loss of sensation in his extremities. They have scheduled medical testing with an environmental doctor.
When Chesapeake began drilling near Deborah Rogers’ home in 2009, she reported egregious odors to the TCEQ hotline but got little satisfaction. Rogers hired a private lab to do tests, which revealed that carbon disulfide levels around her property were 300 times higher than EPA’s standards for air quality. She said she has experienced nausea from the strong odors and two massive nose bleeds that began with severe headaches.
“The nose bleeds are spontaneous and very frightening because the blood flows copiously and within seconds you are covered in blood, your face, your hands, your clothes,” she said. “I have never had nose bleeds in my life either.”
One morning, she found two baby goats and six baby chicks dead from asphyxia-tion. A senior veterinary toxicologist at Texas A&M wrote a letter of concern after reviewing the test results and concluded that the compounds were a threat to the animal’s health and to the food chain.
In Texas and other parts of the country, air pollution isn’t the only serious problem that farmers and ranchers are facing due to gas drilling. Out in the country, beyond the reach of city water lines, if the aquifers that feed springs and wells are contaminated, animals die, land loses its agricultural value, and families lose their source of income.
That’s pretty much what happened over the past few years to several families in Grandview, just south of the Johnson-Tarrant County line: As the Weekly reported in April 2008, their water wells all went bad just as Williams Production-Gulf Coast Company was fraccing a gas well nearby.
One of the homeowners, Brian Beadle, realized his well water was bad when a llama, three Boer goats and two goat kids died after drinking it. At the same time, neighbor Stevan Harris said, his house started smelling like “boiled eggs or human gas,” and his and his wife’s bodies itched terribly after they took showers. John Sayers said his house smelled the same way, and he took a sample of the water to a hydrologist who told him not to use it for any purpose whatsoever — no watering the lawn, feeding animals, showering, cooking, washing clothes — nothing.
Williams Production officials denied that their fraccing could have affected the Trinity-Woodbine aquifer from which the three wells drew their water, but the company did supply all three families with drinking water for a couple of months. Tony Maturo, a consultant hired by Sayers, told the Weekly then that the problem was probably due to the fraccing process having released some gases that had migrated to the aquifer and affected the three wells, but which got dispersed as the aquifer continued downstream so that other wells in the rural area were not noticeably affected. He thought it would be a short-term issue.
It wasn’t. All three families had to haul water onto their properties for more than two and a half years before Williams finally settled with them this fall — by buying all three of the properties.
That kind of potential for long-term threat to critical water supplies is what makes the gas-well-and-water-well collision so scary in North Texas. Each gas well provides numerous potential problems — not the least of which is surface spills and sludge pond leakage. Add to that the toxic fallout from drilling-caused air pollution, and the picture starts looking grim.
Hydraulic fracturing sends millions of gallons of high-pressure water laced with sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture the shale formations, releasing the gas within. That requires up to a thousand trucks bringing water and carrying away the chemical soup that comes back up, having picked up poisonous gases like benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) along the way. At most wells, the flowback is released into a sludge pit. Most sludge pits are lined these days, preventing massive drainage of sludge into the soil, but the water evaporates while waiting to be pumped into tanker trucks and carried to injection wells. And as it does, a chemical cocktail is released into the air — which falls to the ground and eventually works its way into the area’s groundwater.
In Louisiana’s Caddo Parish in April 2009, 17 cows died within four hours of drinking frac water that had leaked from a Chesapeake rig onto a pasture. The gas company admitted the leak, denied that the leaked fluid killed the cows, but paid the farmer for his losses anyway. Last November, an XTO Energy frac fluid tank in Pennsylvania released more than 4,000 gallons of waste before the valve was shut, polluting both a stream and a spring.
Drilling wastewater is also flammable. In 2007 and 2008 in North Texas, wastewater trucks caught fire and burned or exploded while waiting to unload into injection wells. Several water separator tanks have exploded when hit by lightning or from sparks nearby. So while the gas outfits call it simply “waste water” or “salt water,” the Federal Chemical Safety Board, after the first several explosions, reclassified it as “flammable material.”
In Pavillion, Wyo., where gas drilling is booming, the online investigative publication ProPublica recently reported, the EPA last August recommended local residents no longer drink or cook with their foul-smelling well water because of high levels of methane, benzene, and low levels of a compound utilized in the drilling process. Showering with the water might be OK, the EPA said — but only if bathrooms were well ventilated to prevent the methane in the water from building up and exploding.
The Canadian drilling company Encana has denied responsibility for poisoning the wells there but has begun supplying water to many of the residents.
Closer to home, on Dec. 7, the EPA ordered Range Resources Natural Gas Company to “stop the contamination of methane and other contaminants into drinking water near multiple residences” in Parker County. The problem: some residents were finding that the substance coming out of their faucets would burn if they put a match to it.
The homeowners had tried earlier to get help from the Texas Railroad Commission, to no avail. The EPA conducted its own inspection and concluded that “the drinking water well contamination appears to closely match that from Range Resources’ natural gas production well.” The federal agency ordered Range Resources to deliver water to the two homes, provide methane monitors to homeowners, take samples from soil and nearby water wells and develop a plan to remediate contamination of the aquifer. The Railroad Commission has since issued its own finding that Range is not at fault, but the federal enforcement action is continuing.
High-profile Dallas attorney Windle Turley late last year filed three lawsuits against Barnett Shale drillers on behalf of clients who allege that fraccing activities ruined their groundwater.
Geoffrey Thyne, Ph.D., a geologist and senior research scientist at the University of Wyoming’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute, said proper well design and adequate regulation should prevent such problems.
Thyne said that most of the drilling-related problems with toluene and benzene that he’s studied have come from surface issues like spills. But subsurface problems can also arise.
“I’ve seen wells that are still contaminating groundwater or putting off plumes of gas for 15 years,” he said.
In the last 30 years, Thyne said, “hydro-geologists have developed a sub-discipline called contaminant hydrology, which has the procedures and protocols in place to assess that risk. Unfortunately, no one is applying those procedures to this issue.”
Ann Maest, Ph.D. is an aqueous geochemist who serves on the National Academies’ National Research Council Committee of Earth Resources, studying the effects of mining on groundwater and surface water. She said there is evidence that fraccing “opens up conduits between the point of fraccing and possibly domestic wells. We’ve seen the problem of methane showing up in wells and peoples’ houses blowing up.”
When aquifer levels are dropping, as are many in Texas, the dangers of drilling contamination rise, she said.
“I think the whole issue of water in relation to hydrofraccing has not been investigated as much as it needs to be.”
In early 2010, Brian Boerner, then Fort Worth’s environmental management di-rector, talked to Fort Worth Weekly about his concerns with Fort Worth’s single gas-industry waste disposal well. The Eastside facility was permitted before the city declared a moratorium on such wells. The plant, owned by Chesapeake Energy, is being run as a kind of experiment while the city studies the safety and operation of such wells.
Boerner — who went on to take a job with Chesapeake — said then that the city had “significant concerns” about groundwater contamination from such wells, which the EPA has repeatedly expressed concern over. He’d previously said that such wells should be the last option considered by the city for disposing of gas industry wastes. Although state officials say there has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination from disposal wells, experts and residents in many parts of the country disagree with that assessment.
The reason the city instituted the moratorium in the first place was that, after the first well was given its permit, city officials were told by the Railroad Commission that while the city could control where such wells were drilled, nothing below ground was in the city’s purview — not how deep it had to be drilled or into what geologic formation, or the mechanics of how the plant was operated.
However, two of the city’s current top drilling-related officials both indicated that the city has not gathered any information on the effect of the well on local groundwater, because such matters are regulated by the Railroad Commission.
The current moratorium is due to run out in July. Both Michael Gange, assistant director of the environmental services division, and Rick Trice, assistant director for planning and development with responsibilities for gas leasing, said the main thing they are studying at the East First plant is whether trucking or a saltwater pipeline is the best way to transport the huge quantities of wastewater from production wells to the disposal site.
Trice said truck traffic around the disposal well is one of the most frequent complaints that the city hears. Pipelines also reduce the incidence of spills in transferring wastes from well site to truck and truck to disposal well. On the other hand, because companies can’t use eminent domain powers to acquire right of way for such “saltwater” pipelines (as opposed to gas lines), Chesapeake has had trouble acquiring land for the project. The line would bring drilling waste from a string of Eastside well sites to the plant.
As with almost every other aspect of gas drilling regulation, Trice said, the city is limited to regulating “quality of life” issues, and not public health and safety concerns.
“We can’t control safety,” Trice said. “We can’t enact rules that would regulate safety so we have focused on [the question of] truck traffic versus pipelines.
Here are the relevant facts on gas pipelines in North Texas: Pipeline companies can take the land they need for them by eminent domain. The network includes pipes as large as 36 inches in diameter, carrying unodorized gas. And that gas often leaks, poisoning the air. And sometimes explodes.
That’s it. Oh, and Fort Worth doesn’t know where about 600 miles of gas lines are, because until two years ago there was no requirement for gas and pipeline companies to supply city fire and police departments with gas line platting information. Only the Texas Railroad Commission and the property owners got those. Not great when dealing with odorless gas if say, it’s leaking and no one knows in which direction to evacuate people.
OK, that’s all, as long as you also realize that the kind of gas being carried in many of those pipes makes them even more susceptible to leaks than usual.
“Pipelines are a huge subject,” said a lawyer who’s worked in the gas industry for 35 years — and asked that his name not be used so that he could continue working. There are several kinds of gas lines, he said, “and very little regulation on them.”
The most dangerous lines are the gathering lines, which carry “wet” gas — saturated with water and hydrocarbons like propane, butane, and methane — to metering stations and then on to facilities where the gas is dehydrated before being pumped into transmission lines. Lines that carry wet gas are much more likely to corrode, leak, and explode, the
He explained that pipeline companies can take measures to reduce the amount of water in the gathering lines. But he believes that, in and around cities, gas should be dehydrated at the well so that there are no wet-gas pipelines running under and near population centers. Gas companies could use small dehydrators at the drilling site, but very few companies bother with them.
“Don’t forget that there are no regulations regarding the distance from a house that a gathering line has to be. None. You can have a raw, wet 20-inch line running right by your home,” the attorney said.
Why aren’t all gas companies doing those things already? “It’s cheaper not to do them,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
A study done under the auspices of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods, with the help of expert consultants, has recommended, among other things, that the Railroad Commission study the possibility of requiring odorizing of gas in urban gathering lines.
Jerry Lobdill, a retired physicist who has spent a great deal of time investigating issues related to gas drilling, said the huge number of lines being laid, in many cases by inexperienced people, adds up to “just a disaster waiting to happen, and in a place as densely populated at Fort Worth, it’s insanity.”
Another level of danger gets added, he said, when “these wells and pipelines get sold to second-tier companies,” which is traditional in the gas business. “What happens when [the pipelines] get sold to the bottom-feeders? They don’t have the budget to maintain those lines and so sooner or later they’re going to blow.”
As happened on Sept. 9 in San Bruno, Calif., when a 54-year-old, 30-inch transmission line — carrying only dehydrated gas — blew, killing eight people, injuring dozens more, and burning nearly 40 homes to the ground. The pipe was registered as seamless, but investigators recently discovered welded seams, some of which were only welded on the exterior of the pipe.
Lobdill said Fort Worth has been very lucky not to have had any major pipeline incidents yet. But some have been narrowly averted.
In December, an XTO pressurized pipe was found to be leaking gas — enough to cause a vapor cloud — at a well site on North Main Street. That same month, a contractor sliced a four-inch underground Atmos gas pipeline during construction. Neither caused any serious problems.
But there has been at least one deadly pipeline incident near Fort Worth. On June 7, a 36-inch natural gas line south of Godley exploded, killing one person and putting four others in the hospital, when workers installing new utility poles struck the line and ruptured it. The Railroad Commission found that the line location had not been properly marked.
It could happen again. While Fort Worth’s 2008 gas drilling ordinance makes pipeline companies responsible for providing the city with information on the exact location (through GPS coordinates) of each line, the 600 miles of lines that were laid prior to 2008 are not yet mapped.
“The city is looking to hire someone to try to map those via the platting at the Railroad Commission that’s available to us so that we will know where all the gas lines in the city are and can provide that to the Fire Department,” said Bill Begley, a city public information officer.
Even when the city eventually maps those old lines, they won’t have particularly accurate information: Under Railroad Commission rules, pipelines are only listed as having been laid somewhere within a 50-foot-wide right of way.
Since 2006, plenty of eyes have been on Fort Worth’s drilling debate. The industry, for sure, has been watching how the Cowtown guinea pig reacted to drillers’ relentless drive for access to every possible well site and pipeline route. But others have been watching as well. Many cities, from North Texas to Pennsylvania and New York, have taken vastly different routes than Fort Worth.
The Marcellus shale, stretching across much of the northeastern United States, is another major battleground. Pittsburgh has banned urban gas drilling. And shale drilling is banned in the state of New York for at least several more months, while environmental effects of the industry are studied. Even in the rest of North Texas, in a state where oil and gas have been king for a long time, other cities have looked at the Fort Worth experience and put on the brakes.
The Arlington City Council has been relatively open to drilling, but rejected two Chesapeake Energy permits last summer. Now the Barnett Shale play is expanding into Dallas County. The Grand Prairie City Council in November approved a 180-day moratorium on gas-drilling permits because of concerns about environmental issues. And the Dallas City Council delayed a zoning request by XTO to drill at a naval air station, citing environmental concerns.
When it comes to standing up to the gas industry, few cities top Flower Mound. The city was among the first to establish 1000-foot setbacks in the Barnett Shale, in 2003. Last year, the city put a moratorium on new gas well applications and created an advisory board to look at beefing up the ordinance even more. In December, the city’s Oil and Gas Board of Appeals squelched an attempt to drill for gas near Lake Grapevine, citing concerns about the impact on a major source of drinking water. Residents have loudly expressed concerns about drilling’s impact on air, soil, water, and public safety.
“Flower Mound doesn’t see [drilling] as a revenue source for the city — the health and safety of residents is our first priority,” city spokesman Michael Ryan said. “Flower Mound has never shied away from a controversy when it’s been of the opinion that it’s for the protection of the residents.”
Gas companies have filed lawsuits against the city a few times over the years, but the city hasn’t lost a case or paid a dime in settlement, he said.
Earlier this year, Calvin Tillman, mayor of the little town of DISH, Texas, which has fought gas drillers tooth and nail to reduce what many felt were highly dangerous levels of gas drilling pollution, traveled to New York twice to speak to residents and officials about how to deal with urban drilling.
Those trips, combined with his battles in the Barnett Shale, prompted Tillman and a few others to create ShaleTest, a nonprofit air-water-soil testing group.
“The industry likes to tout that there is not one documented case of groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing — they get to say this because no one is doing any testing,” said ShaleTest co-founder Tim Ruggiero. “We intend to change that.”
Ruggiero knows firsthand the pain of drilling. Aruba Petroleum Inc. showed up on his 10-acre horse farm, bulldozed his fence, and began excavating his property without his knowledge, he said. He owned his $250,000 house and the 10 acres of land surrounding it, but not his mineral rights.
Ruggiero’s stress skyrocketed, and his quality of life plummeted from the onslaught of industrial activity just a stone’s throw from his front door. Worse, emissions from the drilling site began making his animals sick (and then, himself, his wife, and his daughter). He noticed gas bubbles in his soggy pasture and a red tint to the water. He sought help from state regulatory agencies but got little response. He became another activist and accompanied Tillman on speaking trips locally and in the Marcellus Shale. The New York Times, 60 Minutes, and other news media spotlighted his story.
That same month, city officials from around North Texas testified before the Texas House Committee on Energy Resources, seeking more local control of an industry primarily regulated by state and federal laws. The Railroad Commission and TCEQ are the primary state regulators, but both have drawn complaints that they are more interested in protecting than inspecting drillers.
“I have no use for the TCEQ at all because they are in the pockets of the industry,” said Gene Kuhler, president of Brentwood Oak Hills Neighborhood Association in East Fort Worth.
TCEQ and Railroad Commission representatives at the hearings described how their agencies were doing excellent work despite limited resources in mon-itoring the industry.
Drillers say they are already highly regulated. But cities are skeptical
“The cat’s out of the bag,” Tillman said. “People probably wouldn’t have believed five years ago that people could set their water on fire because of this drilling. But the word has gotten out. The reality of all of this is starting to set in. There are some people we should have listened to from the get-go but didn’t.”
Not all of the problems presented by urban gas drilling are easily fixable — but Armendariz and others say many environmental problems are.
If the industry would capture more of the gases that escape into the air during the drilling and transportation process, Armendariz wrote, those profits could pay for modifications while reducing the health-related problems associated with drilling.
His key recommendations:
• The use of “green completions” to capture methane and VOC compounds during well drilling, Armendariz noted that Devon Energy made a $20 million profit in three years just by capturing flowback and separating out the gases. That also reduces the problem of disposing of the toxic wastewater and removes the need to flare off or vent the gas into the air at the completion of a well.
• Phasing in electric motors to replace internal-combustion engines to drive equipment like gas compressors, which could also save the industry money in the long run.
• Controlling volatile organic com-pound emissions from condensate tanks by installing vapor recovery units and replacing pneumatic valves and fittings on pipeline networks with “no-bleed” alternatives.
Those recommendations could reduce gas emissions by up to 90 percent.
One strategy Armendariz didn’t ad-dress is the water recycling technology being used by Devon. The company built a plant in Wise County that can recycle 700,000 gallons of flowback water to the point where it can be used to frac another well. In the several years the plant’s been in operation, Devon has recycled more than 400 million gallons of flowback water.
Devon is also the only large company working the shale that does green completions on nearly all of the wells it drills. “It’s standard practice for us,” said spokesman Chip Minty. “We’ve reduced escaped methane to almost nothing. And we make good money capturing that and putting it back into the pipeline.”
Tillman said that while Chesapeake has put some controls on its compressor units in DISH, most of the other compressors there are still releasing huge amounts of gas. “Just after Thanksgiving we had a day where we recorded the highest amount of ethane — a component of methane — we’ve ever recorded. It felt like it was ready to explode up here.”
Why wouldn’t the companies do the extra work to make more money, help residents, and improve their standing with the public?
“I don’t think they care,” Tillman said. “We’re dealing mostly with pipeline companies and they just don’t seem to care what people think of them.”
DISH recently filed a lawsuit against natural gas and pipeline companies, accusing them of polluting the town.
“If that’s what it is going to take to make these companies operate in a green way, in a way that doesn’t poison us, then that’s what we’ll do,” Tillman said. “Otherwise, we’re just going to have to put a fence around the whole Barnett Shale and nobody is going to be allowed in. Because you won’t be able to breathe and you won’t be able to drink the water.”
Staff writers Jeff Prince, Peter Gorman, Eric Griffey, and Gayle Reaves contributed to this report. Photos by Jeff Prince.