Advisory group issues findings

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Denton needs a more "expansive and robust" permitting process for natural gas drilling and production that protects the public and fully considers the industry's socioeconomic and environmental effects, according to one advisory group studying the issue.

The Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, or DAG, issued its findings this month in a report timed to influence the work of the city's official drilling task force, which started deliberations Tuesday.

The 16-page report includes six broad principles and dozens of specific recommendations covering air emissions and noise, groundwater protection, soil and water management, inspections, insurance requirements and other issues. It also calls for a moratorium on new drilling permits while the city debates the reforms.

"Our goal was to make sure we put options on the table to expand the conversation," said Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas philosophy professor who led the group as part of a research and public-involvement project. "We wanted to push the boundaries a little bit with our thinking, to lay out things that are reasonable but maybe beyond the comfort zone [of some city officials]."

The advisory group is not an official part of the city's ordinance review, although City Council member Kevin Roden helped organize it. Roden, elected in May on a platform that included tougher drilling regulations, said he considered the report a good starting point.

"It's certainly helpful for me as a council member to see what's being recommended," said Roden, who did not work on the report. "It definitely represents a lot of values that I have that I'll be bringing forth in this process."

The report includes original work and regulations pulled from ordinances in other North Texas cities including Southlake and Flower Mound.

Many of the recommendations address things residents often ask for at public forums, including tougher insurance requirements; increased public notice and city inspection of drilling activities; and requiring "green completions," electric compressor motors and vapor recovery units to reduce emissions.

The report suggests citywide bans on compressor stations, tank farms, open waste pits, injection wells, gas flaring and "land farming," a practice that involves spreading drilling waste on land.

Drillers would have to pay for baseline air, water and soil tests and for monitoring equipment to measure pollution from their operations.

Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground to break up rock and free gas, would be forbidden within 3,000 feet of water wells and subject to additional disclosure and environmental requirements.

Some residents have called for a 1,500-foot setback between homes, schools and other protected uses. The city's current setback is 1,000 feet but can shrink to 250 feet if affected landowners sign waivers.

The DAG report does not mention expanding the setback, but it does call for eliminating variances for pre-existing or preplanned wells. The report says all home sites and other protected uses in residential developments should be at least 1,000 feet from a gas well.

Briggle said that recommendation was aimed at the Robson Ranch development, where gas drilling can occur as close as 100 feet from homes in certain cases under a plan amendment approved in July 2001, before the city had a gas drilling ordinance.

The group discussed an expanded citywide setback but ultimately decided not to include a recommendation, Briggle said.

"We didn't want that to overshadow everything else," he said.

Group member Phyllis Wolper, a Denton real estate agent, said the report represents hours of careful work.

"While this was a citizens' group, we had a number of people with Ph.D.s and various other high levels of expertise forming these recommendations," said Wolper, whose input centered on real estate issues. "This is not a group of citizens who are bringing just fear to the table, so we would urge our city leaders to take it quite seriously."

Council member Dalton Gregory, who has also called for tougher drilling regulations, said he thought the report would influence the city's deliberations.

"There were some people that were very unsettled about the whole DAG process, and they have been very impressed with the thoughtfulness of the deliberations and the quality of the recommendations," Gregory said. "And I'm talking about folks in high places that were initially very turned off by the whole idea. I think that it all plays into it."

The advisory group formed this summer after some residents complained that the city's official task force membership seemed tilted toward the industry. DAG members developed their report after hosting a series of panel discussions featuring experts on city and state regulations, environmental research and industry practices.

Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, declined to comment on the report. Ireland, a member of the city's official task force, had pointed to language in an earlier DAG report that he said suggested an anti-fossil fuel agenda.

Denton passed a collection of ordinance changes last year that included higher permit and inspection fees and larger setbacks between gas wells and homes. City officials have said the current phase of the ordinance review would focus heavily on health and environmental issues.

A draft ordinance is expected to come to the City Council this spring.

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is



Read the full report from the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group online at



Denton's official gas drilling task force held its first deliberations Tuesday and voted to create 10 "focus areas" for review.

The votes are expected to set the framework for the panel's future work, which will include weekly public meetings at 6 p.m. Mondays at City Hall starting Jan. 9.

The focus areas are:

* air quality

* water

* compliance

* other gas drilling-related facilities

* public input process

* insurance and bonding

* leasing/property acquisitions

* on-site requirements

* city infrastructure

* seismic testing

The panel includes five voting members, and most focus areas passed unanimously.

The panel rejected, on a 3-2 vote, a suggestion by member Tom LaPoint to add a focus area for property values and other long-term property issues. LaPoint and Vicki Oppenheim voted for the focus area; Don Butler, Ed Ireland and John Siegmund opposed it.

The panel's nonvoting chairman, city gas well administrator Darren Groth, said long-term property issues likely would come up when the panel considers on-site requirements for gas drilling and production sites.

"I don't think it's a dead issue, even though it's not a focus item," he said.

LaPoint, Oppenheim and Siegmund are the panel's citizen representatives. Ireland and Butler are industry representatives.

- Lowell Brown

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