A little over a year ago, John MacFarlane recognized an opportunity to bring environmental activists together to work on an issue weighing heavily on his mind: the impact of renewed natural gas drilling on air quality in Tarrant County. 

In Arlington, environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington was leading opposition to new gas well permits from TEP Barnett, a branch of French energy giant TotalEnergies. But the battle had yet to be fought in Fort Worth, the heart of the Barnett Shale drilling boom in the late 2000s and early 2010s. 

Alongside other members of the new Environmental Justice Coalition of Fort Worth, MacFarlane, an executive committee member of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, began meeting with City Council members last year to discuss potential changes to Fort Worth’s gas drilling ordinance. The ordinance was last updated in 2020, according to the latest official copy available online. 

After learning of a pollution incident at the Mount Tabor drill site in east Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood, MacFarlane decided it was time to ramp up the coalition’s efforts. On March 7, he sent a list of recommendations to all council members and requested immediate action “to reduce health and safety risks to our community,” including higher rates of childhood asthma in the region. 

“It can’t just be a social media campaign, there’s got to be boots on the ground canvassing the neighborhood, especially the neighbors around Mount Tabor and all the other sites that are actively drilling now,” MacFarlane said. “It’s going to take massive collaboration, in addition to trying to change minds on City Council.”

Their demands include increasing the distance between gas wells and protected uses – buildings like homes, schools, churches and hospitals – from a minimum of 600 feet to 1,500 feet. 

Dallas passed an ordinance update in 2013 that extended the distance, known as a setback limit, to 1,500 feet, earning praise from environmental activists and criticism from drillers who argued officials were effectively banning fracking within city limits. 

In addition, the coalition wants Fort Worth officials to eliminate the process that allows gas drilling companies to obtain a waiver to drill less than 600 feet away from protected buildings. 

Other recommendations include prohibiting companies from using diesel-powered equipment, which emit more pollutants and requiring the city to hold a public hearing and notify residents living within half a mile of a drill site about new gas well permit applications.

Members of Environmental Justice Coalition of Fort Worth

  • Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club
  • League of Women Voters of Tarrant County
  • NAACP Fort Worth
  • 350.org Fort Worth
  • CommUnity Frontline
  • Texas Eco Alliance
  • Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness
  • Liveable Arlington

In the case of the Mount Tabor site in Stop Six, a drilling permit was approved more than a decade ago and four new wells were approved administratively by city staff without a council hearing. 

Gena Byrd, the environmental climate justice program coordinator for the NAACP’s Fort Worth chapter, said part of the coalition’s mission is to educate residents about drilling in their neighborhoods so they have the knowledge necessary to advocate for themselves during council meetings or other hearings. 

“We have to start with education. We have to start at the base, because if you want the activism from people, you need them to know what’s actually happening,” Byrd said. “That’s not going to be a fast process for us. We’re here and committed to the community.” 

TEP Barnett, one of the most active gas drilling operators in Tarrant County, did not respond to a request for comment on the coalition’s recommendations. The Texas Oil and Gas Association, a statewide trade group representing oil and gas companies, was not able to comment on the proposed regulations prior to press time. 

Where council members stand

Seven council members confirmed receiving a letter from the coalition outlining suggested changes to the city’s gas drilling ordinance. Cary Moon and Leonard Firestone, who represent Districts 4 and 7 respectively, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

A majority of the seven council members who confirmed receipt of the coalition letter, including Mayor Mattie Parker, said they need more information from community members and city staff before committing to support the changes. 

At the request of council members, Deputy City Attorney Leann Guzman said her office is “currently reviewing all of the suggested changes.” A phone call to the city’s gas drilling review committee, which considers applications for gas well permits that require a waiver to drill less than 600 feet away from protected buildings, was not returned.

MacFarlane said he met with District 9 councilwoman Elizabeth Beck, District 6 councilman Jared Williams and District 3 councilman Michael Crain about the gas drilling ordinance before sending the letter. 

Two council members, District 5 councilwoman Gyna Bivens and Williams, expressed support for some of the coalition’s recommendations and said they would be happy to facilitate conversation between activists and their fellow council members. 

Because east Fort Worth is home to a large proportion of the gas wells currently operating in the city, Bivens represents many of the communities impacted by nearby gas wells, including the Mount Tabor site in Stop Six. In a statement to the Report, Bivens said she could request a briefing on gas drilling as a future agenda item at a council work session. 

District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens attends the Reby Cary Youth Library opening in August 2021. Bivens has served on the council representing east Fort Worth since 2013. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

“As a dues-paying member of the Sierra Club, I would be happy to meet with the coalition at their request,” Bivens said. 

Bivens added that she is “aware of the concerns pollutants bring to communities of color” and recalled debates about the distance between drilling and protected buildings in the years before she was elected to the council in 2013. 

“I would love to see it increased to 1,500 feet,” Bivens said. “The request of the coalition would involve industry, local and state stakeholders and, of course, lawyers.” 

Williams, who earned a doctorate in environmental science and science education from the University of North Texas, is also open to making changes to the gas well ordinance. 

Although the requested changes will take time and advice from legal counsel, Williams sees this as an opportunity for the city to create a sustainability plan that addresses widespread issues like the environmental impact of growth and its impact on minority communities. 

“I am definitely willing to lend my expertise to accomplish ambitious goals,” Williams said. 

Through a spokesperson, Parker said she was open to discussing the topic after city staff goes through the proposals and reports its findings to the City Council. 

Attorneys will likely focus their analysis on House Bill 40, the controversial state law adopted in 2015 that prohibits cities from banning fracking. Under the law, cities can only implement natural gas drilling regulations that are considered “commercially reasonable.” That has typically included rules for noise control and the required distance between drilling and protected buildings, like hospitals and schools. 

The current gas well ordinance falls within the requirements of the state, District 2 councilman Carlos Flores said in a statement to the Report. Flores referred further questions to Bivens. Crain, Beck and District 8 councilman Chris Nettles said they were open to meeting with activists and exploring the changes, but did not have enough information to respond.

Shift at council means it’s the right time for change, activists say

With the election of six new council members in 2021, including Parker, MacFarlane said he thinks Fort Worth is ready for a conversation about gas drilling that wouldn’t have been possible under the “old school” of leadership. 

“We’ve had a dynamic change in our City Council,” MacFarlane said. “We’ve got a young council that is very forward-thinking and amenable to talking about and discussing these issues now.” 

Since the end of the Barnett Shale drilling boom in the early 2010s, there’s been more scientific research connecting natural gas production with public health risks, said Erik Kojola, a professor of social movements and environmental studies at TCU who is involved with the Fort Worth chapter of 350.org, a climate change advocacy group. 

A TEP Barnett drill site in east Arlington. Activists who have protested expanded drilling in Arlington are working with the Environmental Justice Coalition of Fort Worth on their proposed changes to the city’s gas well ordinance. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

For example, Johns Hopkins University researchers found in 2016 that treatments for asthma, including hospitalizations and prescriptions, increased in areas of Pennsylvania where fracking had been introduced. But the researchers backed away from stating what specifically caused those symptoms.

“We’re also seeing communities around the country enacting more protections (for residents),” Kojola said. “There’s more awareness, and it’s a reflection of what other communities are doing in response to having this in their backyards.” 

From her experiences working with Liveable Arlington, Jennifer Quick knows that if anything can make council members take action on natural gas drilling, it’s “public attention and demand.” In January, facing a lawsuit from Liveable Arlington and a daycare operator, Arlington council members voted 5-4 to deny TEP Barnett’s permit application to drill three more wells near the daycare and homes. 

“Is this something that touches people enough to make them reach out on their own to their council person or to get a massive amount of people involved?” Quick said. “People may drive by these and have no idea what they are or what they do. We have to address the knowledge gap. There’s so many variables, so it’s hard to say (if council will act), but if we address those variables, that could speed things up.”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman FoundationContact her by email or via Twitter.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org

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