Environmentalists wary of potential natural-gas drilling plans in Dallas

trinitymap1Dallas Morning News
Randy Lee Loftis

A week before the Dallas City Council takes a step toward deciding how to regulate natural-gas drilling, advocates of tight rules pointed Tuesday to a map that shows parkland and Trinity River flood plains included in a city lease to one gas company.

The inclusion of park land and environmentally sensitive flood plains in potential drilling plans has set up another round in a two-year fight over how tough the city will be on gas drilling and its industrial accompaniments.

“Now that we see this map, it’s clear that the stakes are high,” said Zac Trahan, Dallas-Fort Worth program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“It doesn’t speak well of our vision for the future. Do we want to create a world-class park system … or do we want to create a river of gas wells?”

David Biegler, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Southcross Energy and a member of Dallas’ gas-drilling task force, said those concerns were overblown, in part because of mandatory city reviews of any proposal.

“Every single circumstance is different,” he said.

The gas-drilling task force is set to present its recommendations to council members May 16. The group met for six months to shape a new ordinance that would govern gas exploration, drilling, hydraulic fracturing, waste handling, traffic and noise.

Last-minute reversals as the task force finished its work in February signaled more access for drillers to parkland and flood plains — provisions that made their way into the new draft ordinance written by the city attorney’s office.

Until Tuesday, the possibility of drilling on city-owned land was largely abstract, with only general ideas of where many leased tracts might be. Now city staff members have translated the biggest lease into a map and are working on maps showing two other leases.

The finished map, covering a lease to Fort Worth-based Trinity East Energy LP, paints a drillable swath through woodsy land on the east side of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. The lease continues south into the Trinity’s main stem, west of downtown.

It also shows leased land in some tracts of city park land, not all of them developed. The city is not mapping leases granted by private owners.

A lease doesn’t mean drilling will occur, but it’s necessary before a company gets a specific-use permit from the city and a drilling permit from the state.

With current low prices for natural gas, many leases on private land in Dallas County have expired after three years when the company decides not to drill. The Dallas city leases date from 2008 and were to expire last year, but the city and the companies renewed them.

Even without any drilling, the city received $19 million for the Trinity East lease and $14.7 million from ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO. Companies will also pay the city a percentage of the income if they drill wells and produce gas.

Oak Cliff resident Raymond Crawford, who has campaigned for strict rules on drilling, said letting drillers into park land or flood plains relaxes the city’s existing rules from 2007.

“They just kind of turned the gas ordinance on its head,” Crawford said.

Biegler said some land had no public use. “Not every bit of parkland has swing sets where children play,” he said.

Floodplains would face no new risk, Biegler said, considering that the city already allows uses such as garbage dumps.

“You’re not going to have an invasion of the flood plain,” he said.