Caution is their watchword

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City leaders overhauling Denton's gas drilling ordinance should "err on the side of caution" to protect the public amid uncertainty over the industry's environmental and health impacts, according to one advisory group's initial report.

The report by the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group offers six principles to guide the city's ongoing ordinance review, starting with a commitment to protect residents' health and the environment.

"The idea was to try to land on a statement of principles that we felt like most people, if not everybody, could agree to," said Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas philosophy professor who is leading the group as part of a research project. "The disagreements will come in how to realize the principles." DRC/David Minton Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas philosophy professor and a faculty fellow at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, leads the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, an unofficial gas drilling advisory panel. View larger More photos Photo store

He said the eight-member advisory group is working on specific recommendations to release before the city's next public meeting, tentatively scheduled for early December.

The advisory group isn't officially part of the city's ordinance review, although City Council member Kevin Roden helped organize it. The group is separate from an official task force helping the city rewrite its rules for gas drilling and production.

Denton is in the second phase of an ordinance review after passing a set of changes last year that included higher permit and inspection fees and larger setbacks between gas wells and homes. City officials have said this second phase would focus heavily on health and environmental issues.

No recommendations have yet emerged from the city or its official task force, which includes three citizen representatives, two city staff members and three industry-related representatives. The process is expected to include multiple task force reviews and public meetings before a final council vote.

Mark Cunningham, the city's planning director, said he hopes the task force can submit a proposal to the City Council by spring.

Briggle's advisory group is pushing for quick action, saying the current ordinance falls short of protecting the public. The group wants the council to pass a moratorium on new drilling permits or pass key changes quickly while debating more comprehensive reforms.

Group members developed the principles after hosting a series of panel discussions featuring experts on city and state regulations, environmental research and industry practices.

"There's sufficient evidence to be concerned about some things regarding air quality and water quality," Briggle said. "In the absence of certitude you can either go status quo or what we recommend, which is being more cautious."

The group includes residents active in the push for stronger drilling regulations, including Cathy McMullen of Denton and Ginger Simonson of Flower Mound. It also includes two people associated with environmental groups - Sharon Wilson of Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project and Ed Soph of Denton-based Citizens for Healthy Growth - and Phyllis Wolper, a real estate agent and chairwoman of the Denton County Democratic Party.

The group's report describes gas drilling as an unsustainable practice that "exposes Denton to the vicissitudes of resource boom-bust cycles and chains the city forever to land rendered useless by abandoned wells." The group prefaced its recommendations with a call for a national strategy to wean the country off fossil fuels.

The group's recommendations should be viewed in that light, said Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

"Basically it says this group is an anti-fossil fuel group," said Ireland, who is serving on the city's official task force. "That's an interesting place to start if you're talking about what you think about a natural gas ordinance."

Ireland said he agrees with the group's general call for setting priorities, using precaution and taking timely action. He believes the city's current ordinance has worked well but is happy to help research possible improvements, he said.

Breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology are credited with fueling a drilling boom over the past decade that has added jobs and dollars to the North Texas economy. Denton city leaders have said they are trying to juggle the industry's economic impact, limits on municipal authority and a public drive for more regulation.

Ireland recently warned Fort Worth officials that overregulation could threaten the industry's economic benefits. Cities such as Southlake have effectively eliminated drilling by passing onerous setback requirements, he said.

"All regulations have costs and some regulations have benefits," Ireland said. "The question is, do the costs outweigh the benefits? If they do, then that's what I would call overregulation."

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



The Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group (DAG) recently issued six "principles of responsibility" it hopes will guide the city's gas drilling ordinance review. The advisory group, led by a University of North Texas professor, is separate from the city's official task force on gas drilling. The principles are reprinted below.

Introduction: The Barnett Shale presents at best a mixed picture for Denton. It has created jobs and economic growth. Yet it has also negatively impacted air quality, water resources and landowner rights while raising legitimate concerns about health impacts. It exposes Denton to the vicissitudes of resource boom-bust cycles and chains the city forever to land rendered useless by abandoned wells. Considered in a larger context, it is an unsustainable practice that does not address our need to conserve and to craft a national strategy that weans us off of fossil fuels.

Denton has little power to influence national policy and must work within existing realities. Nonetheless, as a home rule city, Denton does have significant power to regulate natural gas drilling and production in its jurisdiction. This power ought to be guided by a commitment to responsible resource development. Responsible development means:

* Setting priorities: Denton should value above all the health, safety and well-being of its citizens and the quality of their environment. Drilling and production must meet or exceed performance standards designed to protect these values. Where these standards cannot be met, minerals cannot be accessed.

* Making principled decisions: Denton city leaders should balance the risks posed by lawsuits with a principled commitment to these priorities.

* Using precaution: Where uncertainty exists about environmental and health impacts (insufficient evidence to establish safety), regulations should err on the side of caution to protect public welfare.

* Internalizing costs: Denton should minimize the externalities of drilling and production. These are costs incurred by citizens who have not consented to them. Industry and consumers (those who profit and benefit) should pay for the true cost of natural gas and its products.

* Mandating best practices: Denton should mandate the use of the most environmentally friendly technologies and practices available. The city should enact a flexible ordinance capable of requiring ongoing improvements in drilling and production practices.

* Taking timely action: Denton's current ordinance is insufficient, yet it continues to permit wells under existing rules. This presents two options. The hard path is to enact a moratorium on new permits. The softer path calls for the city to strengthen its ordinance by swiftly enacting key changes while it debates more comprehensive reforms. Drawing from citizen and expert input and ordinances from other cities, the DAG will propose recommendations for these key measures prior to the next city task force public meeting in December.

SOURCE: Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group



The Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group includes the following members:

* Adam Briggle (chairman), University of North Texas professor

* Mitzie Fiedler, resident

* Cathy McMullen, resident

* Ginger Simonson, Flower Mound resident

* Ed Soph, founder, Citizens for Healthy Growth

* Sharon Wilson, organizer, Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project

* Phyllis Wolper, real estate agent

* Roddy Wolper, resident

Read more about the group on its website,

SOURCE: Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, staff research

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