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Plan to drill for gas in Dallas goes down to defeat

August 28, 2013
frackingprotestDallas Morning News
Rudolph Bush

An energy company’s request for three gas drilling permits failed to win the approval of the Dallas City Council on Wednesday. The defeat could be the death knell for natural gas drilling in a city known around the world for its ties to the petroleum industry.

The permits, sought by Trinity East Energy, got just nine of the needed 12 votes. That “supermajority” of the 15-member council was required because the City Plan Commission earlier voted against approval of the permits.

The vote effectively means that in return for paying the city $19 million in 2008, Trinity East got little more than an up-or-down vote on its plan to seek natural gas on city-owned park land. The city got a quick infusion of cash at a time when the recession was playing havoc with the budget. It also got a nasty controversy over how the deal with Trinity East was structured and five years of bitter debate about the safety of urban gas drilling.

And now, according to Mayor Mike Rawlings and others, the city probably faces a costly lawsuit from Trinity East. The threat of litigation has long loomed over the drilling debate. Drilling opponents dismissed it as hollow. But the risk to taxpayers is real, Rawlings said.

After hearing dozens of speakers for and against the permits, the mayor gave a lengthy speech of his own. He opposes drilling in Dallas, he said. There’s a place for everything, but there’s no place in this city for drilling, particularly hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations. He will support new city drilling regulations that are shaping up as some of the most prohibitive in the region.

Despite all that, Rawlings called on the council to approve Trinity East’s permits. He read from a prepared statement, saying he was certain he would be called as a witness in a lawsuit.

“Today is not about being pro or con on a theoretical issue,” he said. “We have a contract with a business. … There is a chance that by voting no we could cost the city of Dallas millions of dollars of legal and other expenses.”

After the vote, Trinity East chief executive Tom Blanton wouldn’t say whether a lawsuit is next.

“Oh, heavens, I don’t know. We’re so far from that,” he said.

Rawlings compared the dispute to a poker game, one in which Dallas holds the best cards. The city has done everything by the book, he said.

Trinity East can’t drill economically where it wants to drill before its contract runs out in February. Therefore, according to Rawlings, the company’s stated intention to drill amounted to a bluff: Trinity East’s only hope was that an emotional reaction to fracking would lead the council to reject the permits. Then, the company might be able to cash in through a lawsuit.

A leading opponent of the drilling plans, Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, praised Rawlings for his bold stand against drilling operations in Dallas. But he drew a different gambling analogy, saying the mayor was asking the city to take a risk by approving the permits.

Council member Philip Kingston, who opposed the permits, said his vote wasn’t based on emotion but on his conclusion that Trinity East’s request would violate city ordinances against drilling in a floodplain, among other things.

Council member Monica Alonzo, who represents the area of northwest Dallas where the drilling was to take place, also voted against the permits.

The council vote followed a long hearing in which dozens of drilling opponents spoke out. One was Irving City Council member Rose Cannaday. The area in question, near the Irving border, is beautiful — no place for gas wells and production facilities, she said.

“You have many other options to develop in that area,” she said.

A handful of gas industry supporters spoke in favor of the permits, saying thousands of wells have been safely drilled across North Texas. Had Trinity East been seeking the same permits in Fort Worth, a hearing before the City Council wouldn’t even be necessary, said Dallas Cothrum, a consultant for Trinity East.

Fort Worth’s welcoming approach hasn’t resonated well in Dallas, though. Concerns about earthquakes, water and air pollution and noise have only intensified since Dallas first leased its land to Trinity East in 2008. Those concerns have led the Plan Commission to begin drafting a tough new drilling ordinance. If enacted, people on both sides of the issue say, the ordinance will make it very difficult to drill inside the Dallas city limits.

“That’s the momentum right now,” Trahan said.

Staff writer Scott Goldstein contributed to this report.

Yeas and nays

Votes from 12 of 15 City Council members were needed to grant zoning permits for Trinity East Energy to explore for gas in Dallas. Only nine council members voted yes.

FOR: Mayor Mike Rawlings, Jerry Allen, Tennell Atkins, Rick Callahan, Dwaine Caraway, Jennifer Staubach Gates, Vonciel Jones Hill, Sheffie Kadane, Lee Kleinman

AGAINST: Monica Alonzo, Carolyn Davis, Sandy Greyson, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano

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