A Postscript on the Gas Well Ordinance
I wanted to write a post to update you on our recent vote to amend our gas well ordinance. The City Council has been pursuing this latest round of gas well ordinance amendments since the time I came into office in June 2011.
I want to start by thanking the hundreds of citizens who got involved in this process along the way. From the start of this process, I have been committed to making sure citizens had a meaningful voice at the table during these many months of deliberations. With two major universities, a well-educated citizenry committed to sustainability, the existing framework of a city which in many ways is a national leader in environmental initiatives, and a civic-minded creative class, I knew that we needed to hear the ideas coming from the ground up.
I am mindful that certain parts of the process resulted in the unnecessary agitation of many people along the way. Both process and product are crucial to sowing trust in the system and we have many opportunities to improve the former for future issues of this magnitude.
I’ve been quite mindful that while the industry has several avenues and assets by which to address their concerns and grievances in their pursuit of profit, your average citizen has only their government to look to. That fact weighed and continues to weigh heavily on me.
But I can report that to whatever extent you view this as a strong ordinance, or as a stronger one, it is that way precisely because citizens took the time to organize, educate their council members, and frequently suggest ideas for improving this ordinance. The vast majority of our work was taking the list of suggestions from the DAG group, the official Task Force “Minority Report,” and others and working to find creative and legally sound ways to include them in the ordinance. Although many have criticized the process as being overly influenced by industry interests, quite the opposite was true. The DAG group and the Task Force minority members were given extraordinary access and consideration along the way.
These citizens did not get everything they wanted. I didn’t get everything I wanted. Other council members didn’t get everything they wanted. But I am convinced that what has resulted through this inevitably messy process (what in a democracy isn’t?) contains many new and stronger provisions aimed at protecting our citizens, city, and environment from the risks of an industrial activity that is afforded an inordinate amount of legal and political protection in our state and nation. Here are some of the highlights…
INCREASE SETBACK FROM PROTECTED USES TO 1200 FEET
I, along with several of you, had been pushing for an increase to 1500 feet. Legitimate concerns were made along the way by others in favor of keeping the setback at 1000. This is a classic democratic case where no one got what they wanted, but the ball was moving in the right direction. However, when you combine this new setback with the next point…
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS TO WHAT COUNTS AS A “PROTECTED USE”
The original list of protected uses included: any residence, church, public park, public library, hospital, or school. To that list, we added the following:
- residence dwelling (this includes apartments, college dormitories, etc.) - a more expansive list of types of schools in order to make sure we included things like pre-K facilities and Kindergarten centers.
- public pools
- public transit centers
- senior centers
- public recreation centers
- hotels and motels
The point is this: with an increase in setback combined with a significant increase in the types of protected uses which trigger this greater setback, the available land left for gas drilling has exponentially shrunk, particularly in the denser, more decidely “inner-city” parts of our city.
A CASE STUDY ON SETBACKS AND PROTECTED USES: Rayzor Ranch Wells
Perhaps the most visible and controversial drill site in all of Denton, the drilling right off Bonnie Brae served to raise the public awareness of this issue. Drilled before even the Phase I amendments of this process and before the previous setback of 1000 feet was set by council, the proximity of this drill site to a park, homes, and medical facilities rightfully caused alarm. I’ve put together the following map to show you what would happen if Range Resources came today with an application to drill there in light of our recently-passed ordinance:
The current gas pad site is the rectangle in yellow. The general boundary of the South-of-380 portion of the Rayzor property is outlined in blue. I then dropped a pin at only a few of the protected uses surrounding that area and marked a 1200 foot setback circumference around each one in red to indicate where no drilling site would be approved under our new ordinance. As you can see, the current well site would not be permitted. This would force the operators to move considerably toward the middle of the property – right where the surface owners have the largest stake in their project. I can’t begin to speculate how that tension between surface and mineral rights owners might have resolved. What I hope you can see, is how differently things might have turned out with the new rules we just adopted.
Want some peace of mind? Pull up a map of your neighborhood or your child’s school and do the same. Draw a 1200 foot circle around every house, every apartment, every church, every park, every school, etc. in your neighborhood and see what room that leaves for drilling in your neck of the woods. If you need help, let me know, I’ve got an app for that…
REMOVAL OF OWNER-CONSENT SETBACK VARIANCES
Ever since 2010, even prior to being on the council, I was concerned with the way a variance process was written in the ordinance allowing for owners of protected uses to consent to a reduction of this setback down to 500 feet. If you own a piece of land and live in the house on that land and you willingly accept such a reduction for yourself – fine. But in a town full of apartment complexes and rental houses where residents are often tied into lengthy lease arrangements, the idea of an absentee owner consenting to a reduced setback on behalf of his tenants seemed entirely unjust – especially if the reason for the setback in the first place is to mitigate the nuisance issues associated with drilling. I argued for this and the provision is no longer in the ordinance. Reduced setbacks may still be pursued through a variance process, but that process is now a public one through the Zoning Board of Adjustments. In the case above of an absentee owner, the residents can now get involved in the process and plead their case. It is also important to note: the city staff informs me that since the setbacks were increased to 1000 feet in 2010, there has not been a request or a granting of a setback reduction for any new well sites.
AIR AND WATER MONITORING
Throughout this process, we learned that the city of Denton already has one of the most, if not THE most, robust surface water monitoring programs in the state of Texas. The city already has 80 monitoring stations throughout the city on local streams, creeks, and rivers in order to protect one of our most precious resources. Though not primarily aimed at monitoring problems from drilling sites, it is setup to detect issues resulting from them and has the ability to track the problem to its source. This is an example of other environmental initiatives and programs already taking place in our city that, though not an explicit part of this ordinance, adds to the overall protection of our local environment. We are not bound to this ordinance when it comes to overseeing this issue.
Likewise, the council has directed the staff to immediately begin work on an initiative to monitor air quality and ground water quality within a certain distance from well sites. The fact that we are pursing this apart from the gas well ordinance actually serves to give us greater flexibility in our options. I’ll keep you up to date on the progress, but we are determined to do this as soon as possible.
And it is important to note that we have also directed staff to take a new look at the fee structure for gas well drilling and operation fees and augment them in order to pay for these new monitoring initiatives – the gas operators, not the taxpayers, will be offsetting the cost of this program.
OTHER NOTABLE ADDITIONS:
- Require EPA Green Completion Standards 2 years before Federal rules go into effect requiring them
- Compressor Stations now will have to abide by the same setback and well site standards as typical gas drilling operations
- Vapor Recovery Unit requirements
- New noise mitigation requirements
- Water conservation plans and site reclamation plans
- New soil sampling requirements
- increased insurance requirements
STILL TO COME…
And we are not done – during last week’s meeting, we developed a list of topics to continue to pursue to strengthen our approach to gas drilling in Denton. What we will now begin to pursue:
- a specific air and ground water monitoring plan, as referenced above
- research new zoning options for compressor stations, specifically with an eye to zoning them out of residential zoning categories
- reexamine our zoning categories as they relate to gas drilling activities. Because the zoning categories are merely referenced in this ordinance and defined in another part of the Denton Development Code, it makes sense to pursue this as a separate issue. I’ve already offered the following proposal (for those who don’t speak in zoning terms, ‘N’ means prohibited, ‘L’ means allowed by right under certain standard conditions, and ‘SUP’ means allowed, subject to a Special Use Permit):
- finally, we need to immediately pursue the creation of a robust Incentive Program targeting old well sites and new drilling operations that might be vested under older regulations. We might also find ways to encourage new drilling operations coming in under our new rules to go even further in their use of best practices. This is important – Denton already has around 260 well sites in our city limits and many speculate that the majority of our future drilling activity will take place at existing sites. Finding creative ways to work with the industry to encourage better practices might be one of the most important steps we can take from here on out.
As always, if you have thoughts, comments, or questions, contact me at 940-206-5239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.