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Star-Telegram.com

Divided Fort Worth school board denies millions in gas-lease bids

Posted Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

By Eva-Marie Ayala

eayala@star-telegram.com

FORT WORTH -- Trustees voted Tuesday night to deny $2.5 million in gas-lease bids in a 5-4 vote after dozens of residents urged them to delay approving the bids.

The leases include about 480 acres of district property.

The district has a policy not to enter into contracts with gas companies for its own mineral rights if a gas well site is within 1,200 feet of district property.

In November, trustees delayed taking action on gas-lease bids, saying that they wanted 90 days to review concerns and study gas drilling issues further.

The city's ordinance requires forbids drill sites within 600 feet of schools.

Tensions rose as trustees debated and even bickered about the issue, some accusing others of playing politics with children's safety.

Trustee Juan Rangel pushed for delaying Tuesday's vote so that further study could be done. He had been working with community members, gas company representatives and environmental experts on the gas-leases issues.

Rangel said the issue became political once trustees decided to move forward on gas-lease matters after company representatives sent officials letters asking them to reconsider bids within 1,200 feet. He said the board was speaking out of two sides of its mouth by moving forward.

"I'm not asking you to go against anything," he told fellow trustees. "I'm asking for the extra days."

Board President Ray Dickerson said the 90-day period was set when trustees believed bids brought before them last month were "all or nothing." Since then, gas companies pulled the bids within 1,200 feet and submitted bids that meet district policy.

He said he supported the bids after that and after new information came to light, such as learning of a Texas Railroad Commission ruling that says gas companies could move forward with accessing mineral rights in certain cases. Dickerson said he did not want to risk losing royalties in such a case.

"I don't believe anyone on this board would do anything to compromise the safety of our children," Dickerson said.

State law stacks the power in gas companies' favor, he said.

Dickerson told administrative staff not to issue requests for proposals on the gas-lease bids for at least 60 days, about the time remaining on the initial waiting period.

Voting against the bids were trustees Rangel, Tobi Jackson, Norm Robbins, Ann Sutherland and Carlos Vasquez. Dickerson and trustees Christene Moss, Judy Needham and T.A. Sims voted for the contracts.

Resident opposition

Most residents who spoke Tuesday night urged trustees not to let energy companies bully them into action now but to stick to the waiting period.

"They don't want you to bring in the experts. They don't want you to add language to the policy," parent Mary Jane Debenport said.

More review is needed before gas leases can be accepted as more safety and health concerns have arisen, other speakers said.

Some referred to Monday's gas leak in north Fort Worth that created a vapor cloud, saying they worried that could happen near a school.

Because the district owns a lot of land and is charged with the well-being of children, residents told trustees to use their leverage to require additional safety measures, such as low-emission drilling technology.

Debra Nyul, who lives in south Fort Worth and worked on gas-drilling issues while on the city's park board, said trustees need to ask more questions of gas companies, such as where pipelines will go if gas leases are approved and provide a map of that to the community.

Gas company representatives told trustees they understand community concerns but said the industry adheres to strict safety standards set and monitored by the state and federal governments. "We take our responsibility to be a good neighbor very seriously," said Mark Brown, a senior landman with Vantage Energy, who also noted that the company has also worked to clean up blighted neighborhoods.

Kevin Strawser of Chesapeake Energy said his company's bids are part a master plan that was presented to city officials last year.

He said the master plan was done so that the community - including school officials -- would be aware of where Chesapeake intended to drill.

He said the company has worked in "good faith" with officials for 10 months to ensure bids adhered to the district's standards and policies.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700

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