Arlington councilman pushing for less-intrusive gas drilling sites

ARLINGTON -- After staunch opposition from residents led the city to reject two natural gas drilling permits last month, Councilman Mel LeBlanc is leading efforts to make the city and gas companies work harder to keep wells away from homes.

LeBlanc, an avid supporter of drilling, said he wants to protect the hefty revenue stream for the community.

He said a good place to start would be getting city and gas company officials to gather around a map to identify potential drill sites -- both inside and just outside the city -- that would be less intrusive.

The city would urge drillers to acquire those sites and to trade leases and land where necessary to untangle the sites for use.

Like other city officials, LeBlanc wants companies to seek the advice of city staff earlier in their projects, before they make large investments in a site that could be wasted if the council rejects the permit.

"Tight urban drilling is a new phenomenon," LeBlanc said. "And if the gas industry wants to flourish, they're going to have to be more sensitive to the political side of all this."

The city requires drill sites to be at least 600 feet from homes, schools and other protected uses, but critics say that's not enough distance.

While LeBlanc has discussed this idea before, his heightened efforts follow the council's rejection in June of two Chesapeake Energy permit requests. Both were for sites in heavily populated areas: one on Center Street, near the entertainment district, and the other on Bowen Road in south Arlington.

Mixed reaction

LeBlanc outlined his idea at the council's budget retreat and said it received almost no response.

Mayor Robert Cluck interpreted the council's silence as a "lack of enthusiastic interest," which Cluck said he shared.

"Gas companies have to make the decision on where to put" their wells, Cluck said. "They can consult with us, but I don't think we should be in the business of finding sites for them to drill."

He said such a venture could cause residents to question the city's allegiance.

"It puts us on the wrong side of the ball," he said.

The council has, however, asked the Planning and Zoning Commission to look into the general concept of improving cooperation between the city and gas industry earlier in the process of planning drill sites.

Chairman Victor Vandergriff, whose commission has been studying potential revisions to drilling regulations and policies the past several months, said a reasonable collaborative effort on drilling sites might be needed. He said it would be better than "gas companies just finding sites wherever they can, without a pattern or plan that's necessarily in concert with the city's overall development plan."

Darren Groth, gas well coordinator for the city, said the habits of some drillers may already be changing. He's noticed that over the past year more are contacting the city earlier in their site planning.

"Prior to that time, we wouldn't know of a site or have any advanced knowledge until a permit application was submitted," Groth said. "And you can tell they've done more of their homework before they apply, instead of, 'We'll just get this site.'"

Cooperative effort

Chesapeake Energy spokesman Brian Murnahan said in an e-mail that company "prides itself" on working on ways to "maximize production for mineral owners while minimizing the pad site footprint in the community."

Noting LeBlanc's request for more horse trading among gas companies, Murnahan said Chesapeake is partnering with XTO Energy and Carrizo Oil & Gas in such a project in the early planning stages in south Arlington.

The 1,800-acre lease pool, which he described only generally as being in an area bordered by Interstate 20, Cooper Street, Arkansas Lane and Matlock Road, would allow the three companies to produce gas from two sites, "therefore reducing the footprint needed."

To date, the city has approved 193 gas well permits and is considering 51 others.

Where some might focus on friction in those numbers, LeBlanc sees opportunity. The leases on city-owned property alone have generated more than $70 million, most of which has been earmarked for the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation to fund community grants.