After months of debate, the City Council decided to keep setbacks from natural gas wells to houses at 1,000 feet, meaning gas production companies could apply to drill in Southlake again next month.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a gas drilling ordinance that includes new stipulations and protections for residents. The revised regulations have been in the works since February but have come under attack from both sides.
Among other things, the ordinance prohibits the rock fracturing process, also called fracking, during June, July and August because it uses millions of gallons of water.
But setbacks have always been the most controversial item because it determines whether drilling can occur in the city at all.
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In the end, the council left them mostly untouched.
Mayor John Terrell said this has been a balancing act between the rights of the mineral owners and the health and safety of the community. He said that the setback was a "starting point" for the drillers and that they could seek variances on a case-by-case basis.
The city presented maps that showed various setbacks from 750 feet, 1,000 feet, 1,250 feet and 1,500 feet from potential drill sites to houses, schools, parks and other protected uses. The drill sites are based on potential well locations shown on the Texas Railroad Commission website.
Drilling opponents pushed for a 1,500-foot setback like Flower Mound, but the council never considered it. The council did not set a limit on variances requests, either, as many critics wanted.
City Attorney Allen Taylor warned the council that a larger setback could leave the city vulnerable for a "regulatory takings" lawsuit. Mineral owners in Southlake have already threatened the city with a lawsuit if they can't harvest their gas.
Though gas companies can ask for a variance and seek waivers from the affected homeowners, it's discretionary, Taylor said.
"We would be subject to attack," Taylor said.
The council did put a 500-foot setback from city parks and a 300-foot buffer from ignition sources like gas stations and fuel storage tanks. That means if a gas company tries to drill on Joe Wright’s pasture at Texas 26 and Brumlow Avenue -- such as XTO Energy attempted earlier this year -- a variance may be required if the well bore is within 300 feet of a nearby fuel tank farm.
Cyndi Day spoke in favor of the setback from fuel sources but wanted the city to set a 500 foot setback because of the potential for explosions. She questioned whether the council members are showing favoritism to Wright, especially Councilman Martin Schelling, who used to work for Wright.
Wright defended Schelling, saying he worked for him for 19 years.
"He's got as much integrity as any body I know," Wright said. "I don’t appreciate somebody getting up here and talking about him."
The setback from schools remains 1,000 feet from the well bore to the property line, providing extra protection for the children there.
Gas drilling has divided Southlake for the last year since XTO Energy proposed two drill sites in the city. Though a drill site on the Milner ranch was approved, the Wright site failed to pass. Opponents challenged the Milner site with a lawsuit, prompting the Fort Worth-based company to cut its losses and abandon all drilling plans in April.
Now, the question is whether drilling companies will return when the moratorium on gas drilling expires in mid-November.
Drilling supporters like Steve Oren criticized the council for implementing too many regulations.
"I don't think there's going to be any driller that wants to put up with the additional things that are in here," Oren said.