ARLINGTON – The debate over expanded natural gas drilling in Arlington took center stage May 23 as city council members gave initial approval to two new gas wells at 5720 South Watson Road.
After nearly two hours of testimony from opposed residents and people employed by the natural gas industry, District 3 council member Nikkie Hunter was the lone vote against the permit request by TEP Barnett, the North Texas branch of French energy giant Total Energies.
The company operates 31 drill sites in Arlington, including the Fulson site near Tarrant County College’s southeast campus and Fish Creek Linear Park. If TEP Barnett’s request to create a larger drill zone earns final approval on June 13, the company can move forward with obtaining the permits it needs to begin drilling in late 2023 or early 2024, according to a city staff report.
Before casting a “yes” vote, District 4 council member Andrew Piel acknowledged the passionate appeals by environmental advocates and residents concerned about the impact of natural gas production on health and air quality. Russ Gamber, a 47-year Arlington resident and retired physician, was among them.
He pointed to studies showing that 25% of Tarrant County children are diagnosed with asthma by age 9 – more than twice the national average. Gamber connected asthma diagnoses to the region’s high ozone levels, which are created by emissions from transportation and industrial production, including gas drilling.
“This is a public health issue for some 20% of Arlington’s 100,000 children and, I might add, our city’s elderly population and those other adults with chronic lung diseases,” Gamber told council members.
However, Piel said the city’s hands are tied by House Bill 40, a 2015 state law that prohibits cities from banning fracking or implementing regulations on natural gas drilling that are not “commercially reasonable.” In Arlington, the city has rules for noise control, landscaping, equipment and the required distance between drilling and protected buildings, such as homes, schools and hospitals.
If city council members voted down a gas drilling permit for environmental or health reasons, the city could face a costly lawsuit from TEP Barnett, Piel said.
“I’m going to vote to approve this gas well tonight, but I take no joy in doing so,” Piel said. “I do not do it because I love the gas industry, but because the state of Texas has pointed a gun at this city’s head.”
Several TEP Barnett employees, including chief executive officer Dave Leopold, and contractors employed by the company stressed TEP Barnett’s commitment to safety and economic contributions to the region. Spokeswoman Leslie Garvis said the company has taken accountability for gas well incidents in west Fort Worth and Arlington over the past three years and addressed underlying issues at those sites.
“What affects the community affects our workforce,” said TEP Barnett employee Taylor Mitchell. “There is no difference between what is important to our company versus what is important to the Arlington communities. We are one and the same.”
Ranjana Bhandari, executive director of environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, led a door-to-door effort to gather about 300 signatures on a petition opposing the two gas well permits. Arguments by organizations ranging from the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club to consumer advocacy group Public Citizen fell on deaf ears, she said.
“I feel like our government is completely deaf to science, the law and citizens’ experiences,” Bhandari said.
Lawsuit on the horizon?
The May 23 hearing was the first time Arlington City Council has held a public hearing on new gas well permits since January 2022, when council members voted down expanded gas drilling operations at a TEP Barnett site adjacent to an east Arlington day care center and homes.
All drilling permits since then have been approved internally by city staff. The city’s gas drilling ordinance allows staff to approve drilling permits without public input or a council vote, as long as those applications are within previously approved “drill zones,” according to an investigation by the Fort Worth Report and Floodlight News.
TEP Barnett did not file suit following the January 2022 denial. However, the city did face a lawsuit from Liveable Arlington and the owner of the day care center. The lawsuit was dropped shortly after council members denied the permit.
In letters and presentations to the council Tuesday, Jayla Wilkerson, an attorney for Liveable Arlington, raised the prospect of further legal action. She argued that council members should delay a vote until they had more exact measurements of the distance between TEP Barnett’s proposed drilling zone and a nearby home.
Arlington’s ordinance requires a minimum of 600 feet between a drill zone and protected uses, including homes. Any drill zone within 600 feet requires approval from a supermajority of council members.
In this case, Arlington estimated that a home was “approximately 600.1 feet” away from the proposed drill zone. Wilkerson questioned the accuracy of that estimate.
“To avoid costly litigation and other unfortunate consequences of acting too hastily, my client and I implore you to postpone the vote on this (permit) amendment until proper due diligence can be performed to maintain the integrity of your City, its Council, and your processes,” Wilkerson wrote in a May 18 letter to council members.
At council member Rebecca Boxall’s request, TEP Barnett’s drill zone was amended during the May 23 meeting to increase the distance between homes and the new wells.
But Chysta Castañeda, another attorney representing Liveable Arlington, pointed to another looming legal issue for the city of Arlington.
In a May 17 letter, she argued the city should delay consideration of TEP Barnett’s request until after a Texas appeals court determines the legality of “allocation wells,” or wells that do not have the consent of all mineral rights owners in the area. A lawsuit against the Railroad Commission of Texas questions whether the agency’s practice of issuing drilling permits for “allocation wells” is legal.
The two wells TEP Barnett wants to drill at the Fulson site would be affected by this decision and could be ruled illegal, Castañeda told council members. The Austin Court of Appeals is expected to rule this summer, and further litigation is expected, Castañeda said.
Beyond those legal issues, former Arlington council member Marvin Sutton argues the city should take action on what it can regulate.
Sutton, who spoke in opposition to TEP Barnett’s permit request, said the city’s firefighting resources have been stretched thin by population growth and would struggle to handle a gas drilling incident in southeast Arlington. The city could postpone new gas drilling for safety concerns without violating House Bill 40, Sutton said.
“If you don’t grow your infrastructure and your safety network, you can’t go out and use additional services to fight a gas and oil fire, or explosion,” Sutton said. “The city didn’t entertain that idea because they only entertained the idea of the (concerns about) gas and chemicals. The safety issue is applicable. Can we put out fires? Can we deliver those services? That’s critical.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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