Gas Drilling in Denton Update – the Path Ahead
Eagleridge, a gas drilling operator, made the decision to drill disturbingly close to a neighborhood near Fire Station #7 at Bonnie Brae and Vintage, causing understandable anxiety among the residents there. We have heard from fathers of young kids, mothers of unborn kids, and retirees who are no doubt concerned, worried, frustrated, and angry at the entire situation.
Many are thinking: where the hell is the city? Isn’t it their job to protect neighborhoods like this? Why are they allowing this to continue, and worse, why are they now entering into negotiations with the operators?
Throughout the drafting of the latest gas drilling ordinance, it was clear that the new rules would only impact NEW drilling operations. Thanks to the coziness of Texas legislators, law, and legal precedence to the oil and gas lobby, drilling operations occurring under earlier permits are vested under the regulations applied at the time they received that permit. That means that a gas well permitted under 2002 rules, for instance, can be redrilled, changed from a vertical to a horizontal well, and refracked at any point under the rules in place in 2002. New regulations created by new ordinances simply can not reach it.
This, for the most part, is what has taken place in the Vintage neighborhood. Gas drilling permits and wells were originally drilled prior to the presence of a neighborhood. Then the surface owners, developers, builders, and realtors all came together to develop, build, market and sell homes WITH FULL KNOWLEDGE of the proximity of those well sites to the homes. The buyers of those homes may or may not have had such knowledge depending on what sort of research they did into the surrounding properties.
Then this summer, Eagleridge and those who own the mineral rights in that area, made the decision to claim their “rights” and began redrilling the older wells. Despite this being a very un-neighborly way to act, state law protects their right to do so. It wasn’t until Eagleridge attempted to drill a NEW well that the city had the authority, under our current ordinance, to step in and require a permit – one that would have required a 1200 foot setback from protected uses and other new operational requirements. We took them to court and requested a Temporary Restraining Order – the judge denied our request.
I certainly appreciate that these complex legal distinctions between old and new wells are meaningless to those enduring an industrial drilling operation only a few hundred feet from where their children play – whether new or old, its the same effect for them. But everyone needs to realize that this distinction is important from the standpoint of our ordinance: new wells must come under all the regulations of the 2012 ordinance, old wells come under the regulations of whatever rules were in place at the time they were permitted.
Why is this important and why are we entering into a time period of negotiations with Eagleridge? Because there are currently 463 wells in Denton and its ETJ, 437 of which were drilled prior to when the new ordinance was in place. Consider the following chart showing number of wells drilled by year in the city limits of Denton…
We are anticipating that the bulk of drilling activity coming to Denton will be redrills of these existing wells. Eagleridge represents a new type of company that makes money trying to suck the last amount of gas available from wells which are no longer profitable for traditional operators.
What you are seeing near the Vintage neighborhood could be just the beginning of this mess. This is why some of use were so worried when another neighborhood was being planned in the middle of a gas drilling field off Ryan Road. Consider the location of most of these existing wells. Here’s a map showing my house and a 1000 foot, .5 mile, 1 mile, and 2 mile ring around it (this great interactive map, by the way, is available on the city website here)…
The green dots represent existing gas wells. My house is just shy of downtown Denton. Notice that there are no existing wells within a mile and only 6 within a 2 mile radius. But then look to the West and South of I35 – most of the existing well sites in our city are in that area and all of them can be redrilled and refracked at any point. As our city develops to the South and particularly to the West, there are bound to be hundreds of more Vintage neighborhood situations. Situations where drilling and drilling permits preexisted the building of neighborhoods and where neighborhoods begin to build TO the drilling areas.
There are things we need to explore and consider adding to our current ordinance, as it relates to the issue of existing wells. Some would involve requirements on new surface development within a certain proximity to such wells. We need to look at disclosure options (and we’ll see this piloted with the development off Ryan Road set to come back to Council for reconsideration) and we need to have a fresh discussion on setbacks as they relate to development coming toward existing wells. Currently, our ordinance allows development to come as close to 250 from an existing gas well site. Even with a disclosure provision in place, I’m not convinced that’s the responsible thing to do. I am also interested in exploring ways to apply new nuisance standards to old well sites if and when they are redrilled and within 1200 feet of protected uses – sort of a way to create a unique set of standards for such sites that sidesteps many of the regulatory pitfalls and puts us squarely within our jurisdiction of regulating nuisances.
But even with such provisions, I’m convinced that we will continue to struggle with our ability to regulate the redrilling of old wells in a way that adequately protects our citizens. I’m convinced that these operators are more concerned with their rights and profit margins than the well-being of our city. And I’m convinced that they will continue to take advantage of pro-drilling legislators, judges, and laws to push their will on other neighborhoods.
I don’t advocate entering into negotiations because I think the other side is interested in being a good neighbor – they lost their ability to claim that when they set up rigs within feet of where kids play. I advocate entering into negotiations because I think it might result in creative solutions whereby we prevent another Vintage situation.