Senior gas well inspector Tom Edwards weaves his van through the tight spaces of the drilling site, keeping a close eye on the tangle of pipes, hoses and valves pushing water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to break up the tough shale rock below.
Jokingly called the Pancho drilling site because it sits where a favorite Mexican restaurant used to be, the Southcliff pad in southwest Fort Worth is next door to an AT&T office building and several hundred feet from a neighborhood. Eventually, the land may be home to 36 wells.
It’s the third site that Edwards has visited this day but the first with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, underway. While drilling in the Barnett Shale is down dramatically, Edwards’ staff still has to visit more than 2,000 producing wells to make sure they’re following the city’s rules.
“I think it has been a great benefit to protect the citizens’ quality of life,” Edwards said of Fort Worth’s 65-page drilling ordinance, calling it a “good balance between that quality of life and the operator’s ability to produce economically.”
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Others agree. State lawmakers have praised the 14-year-old ordinance as a model for municipalities throughout the state. But a proposed law, House Bill 40, written to bolster state control over urban drilling and scheduled for debate Tuesday, could poke major holes in it, critics say.
Rewritten after city officials complained during a contentious hearing in Austin, the bill limits local governments’ sphere of influence over urban drilling to surface activities such as noise abatement and trucking. Even then, municipalities could impose ordinances only if they’re considered reasonable. Attempts to ban drilling would not be allowed.
City officials say the measure would erode municipal powers and create ambiguity in some areas. For example, rules banning saltwater injection wells and governing the placement of wastewater pipelines might not survive, they say. Blowout prevention measures may be gone, they add, and requirements for green completion — the capturing of well site emissions — could be compromised.
“There is a lot of this beloved ordinance that we don’t know if we get to keep it or not,” said Jim Bradbury, an environmental lawyer who helped write the Fort Worth ordinance and worries about the lack of specificity in the House bill. “It gets a pretty rough going-over.”
Fort Worth is not alone in its concerns. Other cities fear that HB40 and its companion, Senate Bill 1165, go too far in knocking down ordinances that were carefully developed during the shale drilling revolution in conjunction with neighborhood groups, state agencies, and the oil and gas industry.
At one time, the Texas Municipal League said HB40 would dismantle ordinances in at least 300 communities, including Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield, Grand Prairie and most of the Mid-Cities.
Arlington Deputy City Manager James Parajon said the revised HB40 is better than the original version unveiled by Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, chairman of the powerful House Natural Resources Committee. But it still needs work, Parajon said.
“I would suggest some additional improvements and clarity so the ordinances that have been on the books would be in compliance with this new law,” he said. “We want it explicitly in the law that [cities] can apply reasonable restrictions on an industrial operator in the city.”
Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said HB40 is a balanced approach to regulation that affirms the state’s power to regulate the oil and gas industry while allowing cities to manage local issues. If the bill gains the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate, it will take effect immediately.
“I think the bill protects communities, protects the environment and jobs and our nation’s energy independence,” Staples said. “I think there are some legitimate concerns about any type of industrial activity, and this bill affirms the city’s role in looking out for their neighbors.”
Staples said that if the bill is adopted, nothing much will change: “I think, by and large, cities will continue business as usual.”
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings disagrees, noting that his city went through long deliberations before adopting its drilling ordinance.
“I appreciate the beneficial changes that have been made to the bill in recent weeks, but my fear is we end up with a cookie cutter approach that does not take into consideration individual city needs and differences,” Rawlings said in a statement.
In Fort Worth, Mayor Betsy Price said the city sat down with Darby’s staff and met with the Texas Oil and Gas Association on HB40 in February before it went to the committee and when it was rewritten. She is worried about losing control over disposal wells but said city officials are still working with lawmakers.
“You know, I’m not sure anyone is going to think it’s perfect,” Price said. “We still have some concerns over it. … Nobody is 100 percent for the bill as it’s written.”
Mansfield Public Safety Director Bill Lane, who is also an attorney, is blunter.
“It ain’t pretty. It’s still got a long way to go, and there are lots of major cities with the same issues we have,” Lane said. “They [residents] are going to call us if something blows up. They aren’t going to call the Railroad Commission.
“If we are going to act, we have to have something in place,” he said.
State gets ultimate power
It’s been called the Denton Fracking Bill.
The state’s push to exert control over the oil and gas industry came after voters in Denton last fall approved a ban on hydraulic fracturing, a process that, along with horizontal drilling, has allowed operators to tap gas reserves under cities in North Texas.
A grassroots group in Denton lobbied for the ban after residents felt that the city and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry, had not done enough to protect them. Their efforts also followed difficulties that other cities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield, had in dealing with urban drilling.
The Denton ban is being challenged in court, but lawmakers have made it clear in the bills they’ve filed that they don’t want to allow any city to ban a drilling process. The question then becomes how far the state wants to go in imposing control over drilling.
While a number of measures have been filed, HB40 has emerged as the major bill moving through the Legislature. The House version was amended before the committee approved it. SB1165 was approved unaltered by the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee but is expected to be amended on the Senate floor.
“This is the horse the majority of the legislators are backing,” said Bryn Meredith, the city attorney for Mansfield and 26 other North Texas cities.
Darby stated repeatedly during the hearings that he was “trying to strike a happy medium” by letting cities maintain the ability to control typical nuisances while eliminating the “patchwork” of ordinances that prevent the industry from having regulatory certainty.
After city officials spoke out vehemently against HB40 at a committee hearing, Darby rewrote it to try to calm fears.
At the top, HB40 makes it clear that state agencies such as the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are in charge by saying the law would “expressly preempt the regulation of oil and gas operations by municipalities and other political subdivisions.”
Darby added a four-part test for allowing cities to regulate operations above the ground, such as fire and emergency response, noise and setbacks. But the bill says those controls must be “economically reasonable” and can’t hinder or “effectively prohibit” the work of a “prudent operator.”
To provide some comfort to cities with long-standing ordinances, the bill contains a “safe harbor” provision that says any ordinance or other measure in effect for five years that has allowed drilling to take place should be considered commercially reasonable on its face.
Still, the bill appeared headed for a bloody showdown on the House floor.
Then, late last month, Darby called Staples and Bennett Sandlin, the Texas Municipal League’s executive director, who has spoken out strongly against the bill, into his office. He presented them with a letter stating that they will “agree to support or be neutral” on the latest version and that they will not provide amendments unless both parties agree to them.
“We agree to assist Chairman Darby in his desire to keep all amendments off the bill,” states the letter, which was written on the lawmaker’s official stationery. Darby reportedly told them he believed he could move the bill through as written.
The agreement shocked city officials, some of whom were not ready to call a truce.
‘More eyes and ears’
Edwards jumps out of the van and prepares for an inspection. He is wearing steel-toed boots, and he pulls on a fire-retardant shirt and a bronze-colored fiberglass hard hat — the plastic ones will create static electricity, something you don’t want around natural gas.
A monitor clipped to his hard hat beeps if the air contains unhealthful levels of hydrogen sulfide. “I tell people at the city: ‘If you see me leaving, you better keep up.’”
Clearly, what Edwards and the two inspectors who work for him do can be dangerous. And when they visit an active pad site, they are entering a bustling factorylike environment where heavy machinery and toxic chemicals are used not far from homes and businesses.
Edwards said they try to visit each site at least once a year. If there is a complaint, the number of inspections will grow until the problem is fixed. The ordinance they know like the backs of their hands focuses mostly on surface operations such as noise, lights and time of operation. They find issues from the beginning of a well’s life until the end.
But they will work with operators, cutting them some slack if, for example, they need to work past the 7 p.m. curfew to pull a stuck pipe from the ground so they won’t leave an open, uncontrolled well bore, said Edwards and Randle Harwood, Fort Worth’s director of planning and development.
“We don’t do a big gotcha thing,” Harwood said. “But we don’t inspect at their convenience.”
In the 14 years that Fort Worth’s drilling ordinance has been on the books, only two permits have been denied, city officials said.
Edwards, a former inspector for the Railroad Commission who has worked for the city for 10 years, looks for things that he didn’t when he worked for the state, like placing a cover beneath an entire derrick to contain spills or making sure a compressor isn’t too noisy.
“When they first came in, they just did what they were used to doing” at pad sites out in unpopulated areas with no houses nearby, Edwards said.
And while the city inspectors don’t have the authority to enforce state regulations, Harwood said, they have a good working relationship with Railroad Commission inspectors.
“We’re more eyes and ears for the state,” Harwood said.
Blurring the line of who is responsible for what may erode that relationship, Bradbury and others said. What if the state permits a well that is 200 feet from a home but the setback is 600 feet? What is “commercially reasonable”? What is a “reasonably prudent operator”?
Westlake Town Manager Tom Brymer said those terms stem from disputes between energy companies and landowners and are hard to apply when talking about a community’s health and safety. While Westlake worked closely with the industry before adopting its ordinance, he worries about the town’s 1,000-foot setback, one of the largest in North Texas.
“That is a huge, huge point,” Brymer said. “Forcing cities to meet a test that has nothing to do with health and safety is problematic.”
Bradbury ticks off sections of the Fort Worth ordinance and how they might fare under the new law. Freshwater fracking ponds, seismic testing, truck routes and emergency response would probably be fine. Terms set for letters of insurance, green completion and saltwater injection wells might not survive.
“I don’t think the state of that statute is refined enough,” Bradbury said. “If I’m Fort Worth, it’s not even laying the cards on the table enough to say that areas are good and bad and you’re bulletproof.
“Before you say ‘forever’ on this statute, shouldn’t the state know what is in and what is out?” Bradbury said. Otherwise, his view is that “when in doubt, it’s out.”
Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714
How local ordinances may conflict with House Bill 40
Fort Worth: Permits are required before any drilling is done in city parks or other public land. Saltwater injection wells are not permitted, and saltwater pipelines have to be located below city utilities. Drillers must also meet insurance requirements and get permits for using explosive charges. They must also do a pre- and post-drilling water analysis.
Colleyville: Standards set for oil and gas drilling fluids, including that low-toxicity glycols and synthetic hydrocarbons be substituted for conventional fluids.
Flower Mound: Three days’ notice must be given before fracturing stimulation begins. Someone has to be posted at the site and rules require the operator to capture flow-back and gas emissions.
Grapevine: Anyone who intends to proceed with fracturing stimulation must notify the city, including the fire marshal, 10 days beforehand.
Haslet: Injection disposal wells are prohibited.
Keller: No saltwater disposal wells within the city.
Southlake: No explosives charges can be used to conduct seismic surveys, which must be done in accordance with city ordinances.
Westlake: The city must be given 48 hours’ notice of abandonment of a well, and all well casings and cellars must be cut and removed to a depth of at least 3 feet below the surface and a permanent marker installed and inscribed.
Source: Environmental Defense Fund
City ordinances vary on the distance between the well bore and a protected use, such as a home or school.
North Richland Hills
Sources: Texas Municipal League, The Texas Tribune