Monday, December 1, 2008

Money Talks in Natural Gas Neighborhoods
FORT WORTH, Texas — Don Young, a Fort Worth resident, had a plan: He could park his van at the end of Scott Avenue. It's a public street, after all, and if enough neighbors joined him, they could legally block the trucks going to the natural gas drill site under construction.
But a funny thing happened. Almost no one came.

"You don't do it thinking you're going to win," Young said of his plan. "You do it to draw attention, to gauge reaction. I think I learned a lot from that too. I expected most of the people who live on the street to join me. But I discovered most of the people signed with Chesapeake (Energy Corporation) ... It was a bit of a letdown for me."

The drill site is past Young's neighborhood on public, untended lands. Young considers it vital green space in an area only 10 minutes or so from downtown Fort Worth. The heralded Barnett Shale has brought a good bit of prosperity to Fort Worth, from businesses and government to individual property owners. But there are environmental issues regarding urban gas drilling, and that motivates people like Young to act. That impact can be as varied as the environment itself.
Impact on land

Jerry Horton doesn't want a pipe drilled across her front lawn.

"It is absolutely criminal that they can come in and steal our property," Horton, 72, said. "We got cheated."

But the Fort Worth resident doesn't have a choice. Chesapeake Energy Corporation intends to lay a 16-inch pipe under her and her neighbors' front lawns in early 2009, a pipe carrying natural gas from a nearby drilling station to way stations for sale.

City planners have little power to stop many aspects of natural gas drilling. That's because in Texas, natural gas companies are considered to be a utility like an electric company, for example, and thus can use the government-like power of eminent domain to claim land. The same principal holds true in Louisiana, though here eminent domain is called "expropriation."

"They have to come and get our permission to cross city streets (with pipelines), so that gives us some authority to say where," said Sarah Fullenwider, assistant city attorney for Fort Worth. "However, if we were to go as far as to say you can't cross any street, then (the gas companies) would come in and use the power of eminent domain. That's what we're up against."

Utilities still have to pay for the land they take, and Horton is being compensated to the tune of about $15,500. But Horton said she would rather not have the pipe there at all. It could leak, she worries. It could explode. Or it could just mess up the lawn of her 106-year-old home. But either way, Horton feels she has no choice.

Company representatives say situations like Horton's are rare.

"Our pipeline company always tries to find the best route that has the least amount of impact to the surrounding area, while still meeting the need for moving gas," said Jerri Robbins, a spokeswoman for Chesapeake. "Production of natural gas is impossible without pipeline and compression. ... The use of condemnation is a last resort, and allows two parties — pipeline company and property owner — who cannot come to an agreement about an easement to have an independent third party decide."

Pipelines are one of the things Fort Worth residents say they never anticipated when the Barnett Shale play began. Another is truck traffic.

"There has been an exponential increase in traffic; it's just much, much heavier than it used to be," said Ted Reynolds, mayor of Cleburne, Texas, about an hour south of Fort Worth. "Not only the city, but the county and state have been very challenged with the increase in commercial traffic. ... It's reflected in more accidents and serious damage to the roadways."

A pad site, where a well is drilled, can be built on as little as 1.5 acres, and the average well only takes 20 days to install. But one pad site can host multiple wells. At a site in Crowley, on the outskirts of Fort Worth, Chesapeake had drilled four wells at its pad site, meaning drilling crews had been working there for more than a year, with an average of 10 trucks coming in and out per day.

Trucks come to haul away "drilling sludge," a combination of mud and drilling fluid that comes up with the natural gas. A 2008 study by the University of Colorado of natural gas wells in Garfield County, Colo., found the mud contained potentially dangerous chemicals.

"Drilling sludge brought to the surface can contain fracking fluid, drilling mud, radioactive material from the subsurface land formation, hydrocarbons, metals, and volatile organic compounds," the researchers wrote. "Sludge is often left to dry on the surface in waste pits, potentially contaminating air, water and soil."
Impact on water

In April, an explosion at a well in Erath County, about an hour southwest of Fort Worth, blew a storage tank 40 feet in the air. What highly explosive chemical was in that tank?


Water is an essential part of the drilling process. Natural gas is contained in shale, a type of rock, and drilling companies extract the gas by blasting the shale open with highly pressurized bursts of water and sand. Just one natural gas well can use between one and five million gallons of water.

But that water has to come from somewhere.

"Had we been a little more prepared for it, we could have addressed some of the water issues we had," said Reynolds. "We had a pretty severe drought down here ... and when the water gets low, people get edgy about selling water to drilling companies."

Local lake water and groundwater are popular sources for drilling companies. But for groundwater, residents worry the industrial-strength wells needed for drilling could cause nearby private drinking wells to go dry. For lake water, Reynolds said the city had placed a moratorium on direct access to its reservoir to allay citizen concerns.

Just as cities have to worry about water coming out, they also have to worry about water going back in. Shale rock formations typically contain loads of existing saltwater mixed in with the natural gas, both of which rise when the shale is drilled.

That water is so salty, however, that it's difficult to recycle and cannot be dumped into area waterways. For many companies, the easiest answer is to drill what's called a "saltwater injection well," dump all the water in there, plug it and leave it.

That's not to say all companies do that. Devon Energy Corporation, the largest operator on the Barnett Shale, recently won an award from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission for using recycling technology that can recycle up to 85 percent of the water used in its wells.

"It is a top priority for us to operate in ways that are compatible with the environment and being a good neighbor in the communities where we live and work," Foster said. "Our commitment to conserving water and reducing emissions is an important part of our overall environmental stewardship philosophy."

Saltwater injection wells don't just hold saltwater. Pipe-cleaning chemicals, radioactive material and essentially anything else inside the pipes or shale get washed in with the water, similar to the drilling sludge brought up with the drill shaft.

The companies that do use saltwater injection wells argue that because the wells are drilled deep — sometimes a mile or more — and encased in several layers of tubing and rock, they pose little risk of contaminating local groundwater. But accidents can still happen.

The well in Erath County was a saltwater injection well. Lightning struck an above-ground water storage tank (the tanks are the connection point into the well), and it exploded. Inspectors wrote in their report they could see "hydrocarbons" — oil — on the ground, and that the hydrocarbons were running into a nearby stream.

The Erath County incident is not necessarily unusual. There are roughly 50,000 saltwater injection wells in Texas, and though the state does not separate hydrocarbon incidents by type of well or shale play, in January alone there were 46 reported cases of hydrocarbon leakage at wells throughout the state.

Fort Worth has a moratorium on saltwater injection wells and is mulling whether to permit construction of private pipelines for drilling companies to transfer the saltwater out of the city.

"I'm not saying let's take our waste and dump it somewhere else in Texas, but if that resource exists we might as well use it to its full potential," said Brian Boerner, director of environmental management for Fort Worth.
Impact on air

Smog and other airborne emissions are caused by the natural gas process. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed in 2003 alone natural gas drilling and production added 125.9 million metric tons of methane, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. That makes natural gas production the second-largest source of methane in America and nearly a fifth of all methane produced in the country during that year.

The University of Colorado researchers found natural gas-related emissions didn't just contain methane but also chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde.

"Air surrounding oil and gas production areas is particularly susceptible to toxic emissions. ... Anecdotal evidence of health effects due to increased drilling has begun to surface," the paper stated.

Devon's Foster said the company had prevented 6.4 billion cubic feet of methane from being released in 2007 alone through recycling measures, the quivalent of 800,000 trees.

"Since 1990, we have been applying new technology and innovation to reduce the volume of natural gas emissions from its production facilities," Foster said. "We continue to reduce emissions annually through the installation of vapor recovery units on tank batteries and modern, low emission valves at well sites, pipelines and compressor stations."
Environment vs. income

Energy and production companies are in some ways seen as the villain in Fort Worth because of the amount of money they've made.

In 2007, Chesapeake's total assets were valued at $30.7 billion, with net income of $1.4 billion. Devon had assets and net income of $41.4 billion and $3.6 billion, respectively.

Yet property owners make money too. And Fort Worth city staff said before residents complained about environmental degradation, they needed to ask themselves whether they too played a role in that.

"What the citizens probably didn't take into consideration is that they had total control whether drilling is coming to their neighborhood," Fullenwider said. "If they decided they didn't want to lease, then drilling wouldn't be happening."

Young, still disappointed by how few people showed up to his protest, said Shreveport needs to look out.

"The main thing is: Watch the greed," Young said. "People look at the money only and forget the things that matter the most."


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