Chesapeake Energy, Fort Worth school district at odds over drilling near unleased property

FORT WORTH -- Chesapeake Energy has asked the Texas Railroad Commission to allow it to drill near unleased property in southeast Fort Worth, including near an elementary school. But that request has drawn a protest from the Fort Worth school district, which recently rejected several bids for gas lease rights.

The horizontal drilling would fall within 330 feet of T.A. Sims Elementary School, though nearly 9,000 feet below ground. The district filed the protest to gain time to work with the company to ensure safety, said Hank Johnson, the school district's chief financial officer.

"We want to lease our properties if we can, but we want to be sure that the kids are safe," Johnson said.

Chesapeake officials have said their procedures follow strict state and federal safety measures.

Company spokesman Brian Murnahan also noted that the gas pad site related to the drilling activity is about 2,000 feet from the school, farther than the 1,200 feet that the district requires to enter into gas leases.

Chesapeake wants a Rule 37 exception waiver because of pending lease expirations of nearby property owners, Murnahan said.

The exception would allow a gas well bore within 330 feet of unleased property. That could result in gas being drained from the property and the owner not being compensated.

The commission could also order forced pooling, which would require landowners to participate in the gas drilling activity but would require that they be compensated.

Because of the district's protest, the Railroad Commission will hold a hearing on Chesapeake's request.

But the matter has strained relations even further on the Fort Worth school board, which voted down the leases 5-4 at a contentious Dec. 14 meeting. Chesapeake's bids were among those rejected. Trustees who voted against the leases said many in the community asked the district to take more time in dealing with gas companies.

"Chesapeake remains interested in leasing the property from the school district," Murnahan said.

'Crazy old fool'

Chesapeake filed its exception request Nov. 30; but the company's notification to the district was sent to an address for the city of Fort Worth, not the district, according to Railroad Commission records.

Trustee Ann Sutherland learned of Chesapeake's request after she was notified by a community activist in late December, according to e-mails she provided to the Star-Telegram.

The district faced a Wednesday deadline to file a protest; without one, the Railroad Commission could have granted the waiver without a hearing. Sutherland insisted that the district protest.

"If no one filed, there would be drilling without any protection of the community or guarantee of compensation," Sutherland wrote. "No requirement to check on air or pipeline. I didn't want this."

When Sutherland did not receive confirmation that the district had filed a protest, she filed one on her own, noting that she is an "FWISD trustee."

That upset some fellow board members, who said Sutherland did not have the authority to file on behalf of the district. Trustee Judy Needham called Sutherland "an anarchist and a crazy old fool of a woman," according to an e-mail exchange with board members provided to the Star-Telegram by Needham.

"Your filing has nothing to do with the safety of our children as you try to disguise it, but is about a fool run amuck with power," Needham wrote as she asked Sutherland to withdraw her complaint.

Needham said later that the exchange was an "honest conversation between two board members" and that the ultimate goal of Sutherland's withdrawing her protest was accomplished. "She way overstepped. She's elected to set policy, not micromanage," Needham said.

Trustees Christene Moss and Tobi Jackson wrote in the exchange that Sutherland should let the district's administration do its job.

But Sutherland wrote to her fellow board members that she filed it only as a representative of her own district, in southwest Fort Worth. She also wrote that she withdrew her protest after learning that the district did file one.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700