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Processing plant becomes focus in Dallas’ gas well debate

February 5, 2013
rawlingsrefineryDallas Morning News
Randy Lee Loftis

Anybody who’s seen a natural-gas well in production might have thought it looked unobtrusive. Once crews remove the tall drilling rig and related equipment, little remains except a stack of pipes sticking six feet above the ground, and no moving parts — the charmingly nicknamed “Christmas tree” wellhead.

But don’t think Christmas tree. Think more of an industrial installation bigger than a football field with towers three stories tall: four vertical tanks 25 feet across and hundreds of feet of interweaving pipes and valves. Think a trio of compressors as powerful as locomotive engines running 24/7, plus complicated systems with names like glycol contactor and amine reboiler.

Dallas will have dozens of those Christmas trees and one of those gas-processing plants if Trinity East Energy gets the official blessing for the city’s first drilling and production.

The City Plan Commission said no in December, but on Thursday it will continue a controversial reconsideration process that might take several more weeks. The City Council has the final say.

The processing plant would rise on one of Trinity East’s three proposed drilling sites, a privately owned parcel just east of Luna Road and south of Walnut Hill Lane. The other two sites, with wells only, would be on city-owned park land west of Luna Road.

For Dallas, this is a first-time reality check about natural gas. Gas burns cleaner than coal in power plants and has been cheap in the U.S. since shale production flooded the market in mid-2009. Even with prices low, the city’s share of gas income would put some money in the municipal pocket, as has happened in already-drilled cities west of Dallas.

However, natural gas isn’t just forced from the ground and sent to heat homes. First, it requires heavy industrial processing. Dehydrators must separate naturally occurring water and other liquids from the gas. An amine system strips out excess carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, which would corrode pipelines. An incinerator burns off those waste gases. Compressors push the treated gas through pipelines.

Those steps have to take place somewhere. The question of the hour: In Dallas?

Zac Trahan runs the Dallas-Fort Worth office of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit advocacy group. He’s prominent in the fight against Trinity East’s plans.

“You don’t have to oppose drilling to oppose this,” Trahan said, standing on the site of Trinity East’s proposed gas-processing plant during a City Plan Commission fact-finding tour last week.

The setting isn’t pristine or picturesque. The parcel is scraped bare and muddy. A sprawling steel-fabrication plant sits just to the south. A locomotive pulls freight cars along a line to the east. Beyond the rail line, the tower of a concrete plant juts above the horizon.

Just past that, other towers are visible: the light poles from the city’s new youth soccer complex, under construction less than 1,000 feet east of the location for Trinity East’s biggest equipment. The furor over the possible construction of a gas-processing plant and compressor station so near a big complex for young athletes and their families has placed words against words.

Just a typical and unremarkable part of any gas production, Trinity East’s backers call it — a necessity, they say, understood from the beginning as vital to the enterprise.

A refinery, opponents call it most often, summoning images of the 1,000-acre tangles of pipes, steam and searing flares familiar along Texas’ coast.

When Plan Commission members arrived at the gas plant site, a colorful hand-drawn sign posted by opponents greeted them: “Welcome to the Rawlings Refinery.” The reference was to Mayor Mike Rawlings’ support of Trinity East’s plan.

Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council in Fort Worth, has helped carry the industry’s side in Dallas’ debate over drilling rules. He said he read one hyperbolic condemnation of the gas plant as a “gas chamber.”

“It’s a normal part of a natural-gas well in this area, the Barnett Shale,” Ireland said. “You’ve got a wellhead, dehydration, tanks for the condensate” and sometimes an amine-treating facility, as with Trinity East’s plan.

Sometimes there’s a compressor engine at the wellhead, he said, and sometimes the compressors are at a central spot to handle many wells, again an element of Trinity East’s proposal.

Opponents, however, note correctly that the city staff’s report from December, recommending approval of the plan, didn’t mention the gas-processing equipment.

“It’s a classic bait-and-switch,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of North Texas pollution fighters Downwinders at Risk and a leader of the opposition.

Dallas Cothrum, Trinity East’s planning consultant, said the site plan hadn’t changed since the company first filed it in 2011. After agreeing to a delay while the city discussed new drilling rules, Trinity East filed a new application in November. That triggered the current showdown.

The overarching issues that had dominated the debate — drilling in a floodplain and in park land — have largely been overshadowed in recent weeks by controversies over the gas-processing plant.

Such plants have cropped up in the Barnett Shale gas region to serve the 17,000 or so wells that companies have drilled. Some are small to mid-size, while one is huge: Devon Energy’s Bridgeport plant in Wise County. Devon calls it one of the nation’s biggest.

How much toxic and smog-causing air pollution the Trinity East equipment would emit isn’t known; the company has not applied for permits or for registration, a streamlined state process for facilities with emissions below prescribed limits.

Cothrum told the Plan Commission in December that the three compressor engines would emit about 75 tons of air pollution a year. There was no figure for the other equipment. The Dallas Morning News asked Trinity East, through its consultant, for a detailed explanation of the equipment it would use. The company did not respond.

Opponents took Trinity East’s 75 tons per year statement and concluded that emissions would be at least that much and perhaps as much as 600 tons a year, citing that figure as the most allowed by state rules.

The higher figure is not a maximum but just the most a plant can emit without filing a detailed permit application that includes public notice and comment.

In theory, there is no emissions cap, but an examination of state records by The News found that the Trinity East plant is highly unlikely to release nearly as much as 600 tons a year.

Out of 234 gas facilities in the Barnett Shale that filed mandatory reports with the state covering 2010, the latest year available, only 55 released more than 100 tons of pollution. No. 1 was Devon’s Bridgeport gas plant, at 1,847 tons. In land area alone, that plant is 166 times the size of the proposed Trinity East plant.

Even though other plants might dwarf it, at just 75 tons a year the Trinity East plant would be in the top one-quarter of the 83 industrial pollution sources in Dallas County. For sources inside Dallas, the new gas plant would debut as the city’s 10th-biggest emitter, behind five factories, two power plants, a landfill and a regional pipeline terminal.

AT A GLANCE: Drilling issues

Trinity East wants to drill in the 100-year floodplain.
Supporters say: Other cities allow it with no harm.
Opponents say: It violates Dallas rules and is poor policy.

Two of three proposed drilling sites are on city park land.
Supporters say: Care and restoration will prevent damage.
Opponents say: It breaks repeated city promises.

Gas plant
A processing plant would go on a third private site.
Supporters say: It’s routine and needed for production.
Opponents say: It’s a huge, dangerous industrial polluter.

Other disputes

CITY RULES: They allow no gas refining except dehydration (removing water from gas). The proposed gas plant would also have amine-based removal of waste gases.

Supporters say: Both are allowed as normal production.
Opponents say: The city must obey its own ordinance.

EMISSIONS: Toxic and smog-causing pollution comes from wells and gas plants.

Supporters say: State and U.S. rules will prevent problems.
Opponents say: They haven’t and won’t; the air is dirty now.

What’s next: Plan commission, council to weigh in

-The City Plan Commission is expected to open public hearings on Trinity East’s plans on Feb. 7 but is not expected to vote until later. Members will first go see a compressor station or drilling/hydraulic fracturing and will hear expert briefings.

-The commission’s recommendation will go to the City Council. If the commission recommends approval, a majority on the council (eight of 15 votes) would be needed to concur. If the recommendation is to deny, a supermajority of council members (12 of 15 votes) would be needed to override the recommendation and approve the plans.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research

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