When Tamera Bounds and her husband moved into their house six years ago, they were looking for a place to retire, somewhere their nine grandkids would enjoy visiting.
Their 2,600-square-foot home on the northwest edge of town seemed perfect because it backed up to a green belt where they could sit on the back porch, drink a little wine and watch the cattle graze.
Then a gas drilling rig arrived and Bounds said her tranquil life went up in a cloud of fumes.
“I woke up one morning and heard all this noise. There was a rig almost in my backyard,” Bounds said. “It was day in and day out, the noise and the smell.”
Later, Bounds was surprised to discover that under the city’s existing regulations every resident, not just her, could end up living within a mile of at least two gas well sites.
So the 55-year-old physical therapist assistant decided to lead an effort to revamp the city’s drilling ordinance and boost setback provisions to 1,500 feet, require state-of-the-art pollution controls and mandate continuous air and water monitoring.
To raise awareness of possible health risks, and put a little pressure on city officials, Bounds’ new group — Mansfield Gas Well Awareness — will hear from a Lubbock physician Wednesday discussing public health studies on the dangers of living close to gas wells.
“We want the changes to happen so we have at least clean air to breathe,” Bounds said.
The Mansfield effort comes at a time when concerns about urban gas drilling are being debated in New York state and in several cities in Colorado and California.
But probably the fight drawing the most attention is in Denton, about 50 miles away, where residents became so frustrated that they successfully petitioned to have a ban on hydraulic fracturing put on the Nov. 4 ballot. Hydraulic fracturing is the act of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to break up the shale to release oil and gas. That process, along with horizontal drilling, makes urban drilling possible.
In Mansfield, Bounds steers clear of saying they are seeking any kind of ban, just tighter regulations.
But Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, said the overall impact — particularly a 1,500-foot setback — could create a “de facto ban” since it takes at least 200 acres on a site to meet the qualifications.
“In essence, it would be a ban,” Ireland said.
Saying the situations in Mansfield and Denton are different, Mansfield City Councilman Stephen Lindsey defended the city’s ordinance and pointed out that the city has revisited its guidelines several times since it was first passed nine years ago, most recently earlier this year.
But Lindsey, an executive at Quicksilver Resources, a Fort Worth-based oil and gas producer, is well aware that there is a bigger debate going on about how far a city can go to regulate the industry.
“I think this could turn out to be a defining moment in establishing a bright line of exactly what a municipality can do and cannot do,” he said.
‘A major improvement’
Mansfield officials noted several significant revisions since the drilling ordinance was adopted in 2005. Among those revisions, a well permit now expires after five years, and all drilling equipment has to be electric and connected to the city power grid, said Planning Director Felix Wong.
The ordinance requires a minimum 600-foot buffer zone measured from a proposed drilling pad site to the property line of a homeowner or residential subdivision, commercial or public building, school or day care. A 1,000-foot separation is required for hospitals, jails and nursing homes with non-ambulatory patients.
The ordinance allows wells to be drilled within 300 feet of a protected property if property owners within 600 feet of the proposed site consent. Fire codes dictate that no house can be within 100 feet of a wellhead.
At one time, city officials considered increasing the buffer zone to up to 1,000 feet. But they decided against it, saying that even with the present setback, expanding development has all but eliminated new drilling space.
Last year, after Bounds and others complained about the drilling rig near their homes, the ordinance was amended to ban fracking on Sundays and encourage drilling companies to notify residents when certain site activities are about to occur.
The city also now forbids the practice of “flaring” — burning off unusable gas — and requires using a greener dehydration process.
Having a driller connect to the city’s power grid to run the generators for the drilling equipment eliminated diesel exhaust and hushed much of the site noise.
“It’s a tiny change, but it’s a major improvement,” Wong said.
‘Opportune time to act’
Wong said that many kinds of development — not just gas wells — generate friction with property owners who aren’t aware of the planned uses for vacant land. It’s a buyer’s responsibility to check before purchasing land next to undeveloped acreage or seemingly dormant drill sites, which can spring back to life at any time.
“If people choose voluntarily to build right next door or within 600 feet, it’s their choice,” Wong said.
Despite a hectic start in 2005, much of the gas exploration in Mansfield now is on hold. Many gas companies are waiting out the weak price for natural gas, said Art Wright, a city planner and gas well coordinator. Currently there are no new wells being drilled in Mansfield but some existing wells are being fracked, he said.
He said 206 gas wells have been drilled since 2005, which is fewer than half of the 512 wells the city has authorized to be drilled on 57 pad sites.
Bounds and environmentalist Jim Schermbeck say now — while drilling is slow and permits need to be reviewed — is the time to revisit the drilling ordinance.
“ It’s an opportune time to act,” said Schermbeck, who is probably best known for his work with Downwinders at Risk that fought against the cement kilns in Midlothian. He also was involved in the Dallas gas drilling ordinance.
Bounds wants any rewriting of the ordinance to apply to all the wells, not just the new ones.
She’s also particularly concerned about the level of protection citizens are receiving from the city following a Sept. 13 incident in which gas was released when a piece of equipment at the wellhead near her home and the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts failed.
While the Texas Railroad Commission investigated the incident and found no violations, documents suggest that the Mansfield Fire Department and gas well inspector didn’t notify the operator, EagleRidge Energy, until more than five hours after the leak had initially been reported.
The operator said that they were “looking into communication issues with Mansfield authorities,” according to a railroad commission inspection report.
“The fire department thought it was steam,” Bounds said. “We are wanting protection in quite a few areas because the city is just not doing that.”
Monday night, Fire Chief Barry Bondurant said a fire truck crew was returning from an emergency medical call about 3 a.m. that night and heard a hissing sound coming from that well site. The firefighters stopped and check the site, but their gas monitoring devices didn’t detect gas and there was no odor, he said.
“They thought it was steam coming off,” Bondurant said. “They thought it was part of normal operations.”
The department didn’t receive the first call until about 7 a.m., which Bondurant cited as evidence that there was no delay in notifying the operator.
After that incident, Bondurant said, the department bought new gas detectors for the fire trucks.
Seeking common ground
The recent city-to-city skirmishes over urban gas drilling may persuade state lawmakers to bring some uniformity to regulations, and state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he would be among those who would offer legislation preventing cities from enacting bans like the one on the ballot in Denton.
“Oil and gas deposits don’t stop at a city limit. From a public policy standpoint, we need uniform rules for this,” King said. “It’s one thing to say someone can’t use their surface for commercial when it’s residential. But to tell someone they can’t use their property at all is overreaching of government.”
Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth environmental lawyer, is afraid of what the Legislature might do. Cities like Fort Worth and Arlington spent a lot of time, money and effort adopting ordinances over the years that balance the rights of the residents and gas well operators.
“That would be catastrophic [if the Legislature stripped away municipal powers] in my opinion and an affront to those cities,” said Bradbury, who was instrumental in passing the ordinance setting a 600-foot setback in Fort Worth. “We went through a lot of work and headache to get this far.”
That is why it will be important for Mansfield city officials to sit down with Bounds and her backers to hash out their concerns and hopefully come up with a solution that produces a “positive outcome,” Lindsey said.
“We have to look at the next three years and the next 30 years. We can’t become so polarized that we can’t collaborate on a mutually beneficial outcome,” Lindsey said.