‘It shouldn’t be a done deal.’ Arlington officials set to OK gas drilling without public hearing
Arlington’s west side will soon be home to 11 new gas wells, with city staff planning to approve new drilling without a public city council hearing.
TEP Barnett’s permit application comes nearly seven months after council members narrowly denied the company’s attempt to drill within several hundred feet of an east Arlington day care center and homes.
That application required a public hearing process because TEP Barnett, which is owned by French energy giant Total Energies, sought to frack outside of an already established drill zone.
This time, TEP Barnett’s proposed new wells at 3701 W. Interstate 20 are within an established drill zone and will not require a public hearing, said Richard Gertson, assistant planning and development services director.
Instead, staff will administratively approve the company’s application to drill more at its Bruder site as soon as this week, Gertson said.
“Absent any further direction that we have administratively and at staff level to do something different, then we’re going to proceed as our ordinances allow us to do,” Gertson said. “We’re pretty much pure administrators, and that’s how we try to keep it above board for everybody.”
Council members already approved a drill zone for the pad site in 2012, when Chesapeake Energy owned and operated the gas wells. In 2016, Total Energies obtained much of Chesapeake’s assets in the North Texas Barnett Shale and continues to operate hundreds of gas well sites in the region.
Since then, city officials have not issued violations of Arlington’s gas drilling ordinance to the Bruder site. City staff would be compelled to investigate and possibly call for a public hearing if there was more than one violation, Gertson said.
Council members have the power to request further discussion on issues, including gas well drilling, Gertson said. The planning department could also consider public comments that raise new concerns.
“If (residents) were to point out something that we’re unaware of, or that there was some issue that we had not explored, then I assure you, we look into those kinds of things,” Gertson said.
But Ranjana Bhandari, who leads the environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, said the city can and should call a public hearing because of prior violations the company incurred from other Arlington drill sites.
“It’s really important to listen to that new science instead of rubber stamping 11 new gas wells at an existing site,” Bhandari said. “My thinking is that people charged with making this important decision would welcome new information to base their decision on because they’re charged with protecting Arlington residents.”
TEP Barnett spokeswoman Marie Maitre said the company’s permit application follows the city of Arlington’s rules for administrative approval of new gas wells since a public hearing already took place to approve the site. The company will follow the city’s rules for notifying residents and businesses within a quarter-mile of the drill site, she said.
“TEP Barnett has operated this site in a safe and environmentally-responsible way that is fully compliant with all local and state requirements of our business,” Maitre said by email. “The Arlington City Code has a robust process for notification of the community around natural gas drilling sites that we fully comply with, and we will again follow at the Bruder site.”
In a July 22 letter to Mayor Jim Ross and council members, Bhandari cited two violations issued to TEP Barnett at other Arlington drill sites for violating noise ordinance rules and using a diesel rig rather than an electric rig, which emits less pollution.
She also cited two specific incidents at TEP Barnett-operated sites: a pollution incident at east Fort Worth’s Mount Tabor drill site in February, and a west Fort Worth gas well blowout that led to power shutdowns and health concerns in April.
“The drilling and fracking of 11 wells will lead to similar problems for the Bruder neighborhood,” Bhandari wrote. “City ordinance states that (staff) can, but not shall, administratively approve these new fracking permits without council input or a public hearing.”
Bhandari was only familiar with one other instance where Arlington administratively approved a permit application, when the planning department approved seven more wells at a site near Arlington’s municipal airport.
But, according to Gertson, the process is not uncommon. His department tallied 81 gas well permits that have been approved administratively since Arlington’s gas well ordinance authorized the process in 2012.
“At staff level, the administrative approval is something we do every day … and we know that the gas wells are controversial and are a little bit unique, but for us, the approval process is pretty much the same (in) making sure it meets those requirements (of our ordinances),” Gertson said.
Meanwhile, TEP Barnett’s expansion in Tarrant County shows no sign of slowing down. So far this year, the company has submitted 42 applications for new gas wells in Arlington, according to Liveable Arlington’s permit tracker.
“Natural gas is a vital part of our society’s growing energy needs,” Maitre said. “When considering placement of new natural gas wells, we prioritize our existing padsites and infrastructure.”
Depending on the need for more information from TEP Barnett, the Bruder applications will be approved anywhere in the next few days to the next few weeks, Gertson said. That doesn’t sit well with Bhandari.
“If (city officials) all do their jobs the way they are supposed to, it should not be a done deal,” Bhandari said. “If they truly watch out for the interests of residents, if they want to base their decision on the best, most current scientific consensus, then how can it be a done deal?”
This story was produced in partnership with Haley Samsel, the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Email Haley Samsel at email@example.com. You can follow Haley on Twitter via @Haley_Samsel.