Arlington approves fee on natural gas wells

This article has been modified from the way in which it was originally published in the Star-Telegram and on to correct the amount of the fee.

ARLINGTON -- Over opposition from natural gas drillers and the Chamber of Commerce, the Arlington City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved a new $2,397 annual fee per gas well that will fund an emergency preparedness and response program.

The fee will generate an estimated $781,450 a year for additional firefighters, training and equipment, which Fire Chief Don Crowson has said the city needs to prevent and better respond to gas well emergencies.

Arlington has more than 300 gas wells.

The city-run emergency program is the first in the Barnett Shale.

Representatives of Chesapeake Energy, XTO Energy and Quicksilver Resources asked the council to postpone voting until their questions about liability issues and financial impact had been addressed.

Judy Raab, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for Quicksilver, said her company was troubled by the lack of details about implementing the program. The company also disagreed with the fee.

"We are not opposed to commit substantial resources and even supply reasonable equipment and training to further these efforts," Raab said. "We don't believe these fees are fair or proportional."

Mayor Robert Cluck sought to postpone the vote until March 20 to allow another meeting between city officials and gas industry representatives. But other council members wanted to vote immediately.

The vote was 7-0. Two council seats are vacant.

What the new

fees will pay for

Crowson has said the program will improve the city's working relationship with the gas industry, make well sites safer and more secure, and enhance the department's emergency response capabilities.

The fees will pay for a fire captain to manage the emergency program, for a security and safety inspector and for six additional firefighters.

The fees will also pay for industry-specific training and special equipment to create gas well emergency response teams at Fire Station 1 downtown and Fire Station 9 in southeast Arlington, he said. In all, 48 firefighters will receive the training.

The new measures will be in addition to the city's well inspection program.

A handful of residents applauded the chief's proposal Tuesday night.

"Drill sites are industrial mining operations. The wells are expected to produce for decades. The drilling industry is unique in its ability to have explosive, catastrophic events," Kimberly Frankland said. "When more well malfunction events occur in Arlington, we need a Fire Department that knows what to expect and how to react."

Opposition and response

In a letter last month, drillers offered to provide the Fire Department with training to better prepare them for well site emergencies as an alternative to the new program, which they say could lead to "potentially unsafe measures, unreasonable costs and additional burdens that may prohibit the industry from quickly and safely managing any unforeseen or unplanned critical incident."

In a letter to drillers Monday, Crowson wrote that the high number of gas wells in Arlington placed an "undue burden" on the Fire Department's response system and that the industry should support the preparedness and response proposal to help increase public safety.

Gas well disasters, whether accidental, intentional or weather-related, require comprehensive emergency management, Crowson said.

They could require long-term shelters for affected neighborhoods and disrupt commerce, transportation and water utilities for weeks, he said.

Crowson pointed to the Nomac 17 well fire near Sweetwater, Okla., in January, which took more than a week to control.

"Arlington is a densely populated city and a [natural gas] well emergency in Arlington has the potential to impact large numbers of people, while in the rural setting a well emergency may impact a few people," Crowson wrote.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce disagreed with creating fees so soon after the city implemented other ordinance changes that affect gas wells and could raise the industry's costs.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578