FORT WORTH -- Trustees are expected to vote on $500,000 in natural gas lease bids at tonight's Fort Worth school board meeting, but some neighborhood activists are upset that the bid proposals do not include tougher safety measures.
Activists are also concerned that at least two school board members sent letters to Austin opposing legislation that would require all gas well sites to be at least 1,200 feet from schools. The letters were later rescinded.
The bids that trustees will consider were initially voted down last winter after much opposition from neighborhood representatives, who said some leases would have included mineral rights for schools within 1,200 feet of drill sites.
After presentations from the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods and the gas industry, some trustees indicated that they wanted to move forward on leasing district mineral rights while at the same time finding ways to make drilling safer.
League member Deborah Rogers said the bids do not include any additional measures neighborhood representatives want, such as more electric compressor engines and motors.
"It's just going to be business as usual, as if nothing happened in the last 90 days," she said. "That's the way it looks."
The district's chief financial officer, Hank Johnson, said tonight's bids are all on existing wells that are outside the 1,200-foot perimeter.
"These are already in existence and you can't use an electric drill rig, for example, on one that's already been established and drilling," Johnson said. "We're still waiting on recommendations [from the school board] on how to proceed on other bids."
Most of the bids would be awarded to Chesapeake Exploration if approved.
"Obviously, safety is a top concern for us at Chesapeake at all our sites," spokesman Brian Murnahan said. "We think we're doing everything necessary now with our sites to make sure they are in tip-top shape."
Letters on legislation
In a related matter, Trustees Tobi Jackson and Judy Needham initially sought to oppose legislation that would have mirrored the school district's policy. State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill to require all future gas drilling sites to be at least 1,200 feet from schools. While the Fort Worth district does not have authority over gas drilling sites, it does have a policy not to lease its own minerals if sites are within 1,200 of school property unless trustees approve a waiver.
The day before the House Energy Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill, a Facebook posting by local attorney Jason Smith, who testified in favor of the bill, said an energy company lobbyist was "bragging" that he had letters in his pocket from some Fort Worth school trustees who opposed the bill.
The posting concerned Rogers, the league member, who said she obtained e-mail exchanges from the office of Rep. James Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the Energy Resources Committee, through a public information request.
The e-mails show that Jackson and Needham provided written testimony March 15 that opposed Burnam's bill, which is endorsed by the Texas Association of School Boards. Jackson and Needham rescinded their testimony hours after the Facebook posting by Smith.
Jackson told the Star-Telegram that she initially opposed the legislation because she understood that it would remove local control, which she said concerned her because the district is considering changing its policy.
"Once I realized that wouldn't be the case, I rescinded the letter" and supported the bill, Jackson said.
Needham said she too opposed it because she believes in local control. "School boards should be able to set our own policy," she said.
In an e-mail sent to Keffer's office rescinding her testimony, Needham said she wanted to remain neutral on the bill.
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700