It’s been more than a decade since the peak of the Barnett Shale boom in the Fort Worth area, prompting global interest in the North Texas natural gas drilling market and outrage from activists concerned about the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on air and water quality.
The boom’s legacy looms large in the minds of residents and industry analysts as French energy giant Total plans to expand its fracking operations in Tarrant County. Over the course of the summer, Total’s Fort Worth branch, TEP Barnett, received approval from the Railroad Commission of Texas to drill 26 new wells in Fort Worth, Arlington, White Settlement and North Richland Hills.
Why now? Total appears to be taking advantage of the lower costs associated with drilling during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bruce Bullock, the director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University. Natural gas prices were depressed before the coronavirus crisis and have recovered at a faster rate than oil prices, driving more interest in fracking where companies already own mineral rights, Bullock said.
“You can drill and complete a well so much cheaper than you could have a year ago that the economics work right now for them to be able to do it,” Bullock said. “The legal cost is already sunk since they already own the lease holds. Given that and the fact that the forward price is so high, they can drill so deep and it doesn’t take very long to drill a well anymore, it’s relatively attractive to them right now.”
Fort Worth and North Richland Hills officials said they have not received permit requests from TEP Barnett, which will require city approval before the company can move forward. White Settlement did not respond to requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for TEP Barnett.
Cecilia Leyba, a gas well inspector for the city of Fort Worth, said she suspects that the renewed interest in drilling could stem from natural gas companies needing to meet the terms of their lease agreements with the original mineral rights holders.
The company has hit some roadblocks in its quest to expand drilling in Tarrant County. In June, the Arlington City Council rejected TEP Barnett’s request to drill new wells at an existing site near a neighborhood and day care center, citing concerns about residents’ respiratory health.
However, with its next permit request in Arlington, TEP Barnett did not go through a council hearing process and received administrative approval to drill seven new wells at its Rocking Horse drilling site, located next to a preschool and medical offices.
Ranjana Bhandari, the director of environmental group Liveable Arlington, and fellow activists often highlight the potential detrimental effects of fracking, including the contamination of groundwater aquifers, the use of toxic chemicals and the impact of inhaling vapors stemming from drill sites.
She criticized TEP Barnett for drilling within 300 feet of the school without going through a public hearing process that would have notified more people living and working in the vicinity of the drill site.
“It all seems very problematic and very new to all of us, because this has been going on for over 12 years but it always happens following the procedure, which is to notify the neighborhood, then planning and zoning has to approve it and then the city council has to approve it,” Bhandari said. “We’ve never seen that before.”
HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF? NOT EXACTLY, EXPERTS SAY
The heightened anxiety over TEP Barnett’s drilling push recalls the history of the Barnett Shale boom in North Texas, which largely spanned Tarrant, Johnson, Wise and Denton counties. Within six months of reaching its peak in summer 2008, the boom went bust in terms of companies fighting for new leases thanks to a surplus of natural gas and the tanking of stock prices, according to Diana Hinton, a historian at the University of Texas-Permian Basin who published a 2018 book titled “Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth.”
As natural gas companies flocked to the area in the early and mid-2000s, Fort Worth and surrounding communities struggled to develop regulations around urban drilling, which was essentially unexplored territory in the history of the Texas petroleum industry, Hinton said.
“Most city governments were torn, and this is particularly true of Fort Worth, which definitely liked the idea of all this wonderful economic development,” Hinton said. “But most of the time, development and production is out in the country and there just wasn’t an easy kind of rule book to fall back on and refer to as ‘this is what we need to do.’ It had to be figured out on a day by day basis because there was no model.”
Sharon Wilson, who worked in Fort Worth’s oil and gas industry for 12 years before buying property in rural Wise County in 1996, was on the front lines of fracking’s arrival in North Texas. Through her documentation of the natural gas drilling industry on her blog, Wilson emerged as a leading voice against fracking and now works as a senior field advocate for the environmental advocacy group Earthworks.
“It tore apart our community because the landmen came in and started offering people money to lease their minerals, but they were told they had to keep it totally secret,” Wilson said. “It pit neighbor against neighbor. … Eventually, my air turned brown and my water turned black and I didn’t feel like I could stay there any longer because I had a young son, so I moved to Denton.”
Denton became a lightning rod for the fracking debate when voters banned fracking within city limits in 2014, prompting a lengthy legal battle and a state law limiting cities’ local control on drilling. Now based in Dallas, Wilson said most Americans are still unaware of the invisible pollution generated by oil and gas production, usually in the form of methane releases that contribute to climate change.
“As the industry continues to expand, as Total is trying to do in Fort Worth and Arlington, our atmospheric methane will just go higher and higher and higher,” Wilson said. “The only way that we’re going to be able to stop the methane from oil and gas is to stop the expansion and then deal with the existing facilities and try to heavily regulate those while we transition to renewable energy.”
NATURAL GAS RESURGENCE PART OF LARGER STRATEGY
While a natural gas boom may not be returning to the Fort Worth area, Bullock said, major companies like Total, Exxon Mobil and Chevron have planned to be more focused on natural gas rather than oil and coal production. It’s hard to say whether the shift is beginning to occur or if this is a “false start,” he said.
“We’ll have to wait and see, but most of the major companies have been preparing for this,” Bullock said.
North Texas cities, which are legally obligated to respect the mineral rights of companies, are also better prepared for the influx of drilling, Hinton said. After facing complaints of intrusive drilling in neighborhoods, many communities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and North Richland Hills, updated their gas production ordinances. Now, companies must install noise barriers and follow setback limits that require gas wells to be a certain distance from protected buildings, including schools, Hinton said.
But advocates like Wilson and Bhandari say that petroleum companies are adept at avoiding enforcement of those regulations. Wilson worries that cities have lost their ability to regulate natural gas drilling and Fort Worth-area residents refuse to believe that natural gas drilling could return in full force to their communities.
“The Texas Legislature has set up a situation to make it almost impossible for cities to fight back,” Wilson said, referring to a 2015 law that stopped municipalities from regulating drilling. “The buck stops with the lawmakers. They are the ones who are letting the industry get away with this, and somebody somewhere has got to stand up to the industry and say, ‘The public is more important.’”
Read it from Star Telegram – Photo as posted on Star Telegram (Drilling rigs, like this one shown in a 2011 file photo, were a common sight in the Fort Worth area during the Barnett Shale boom of the early to mid-2000s. French energy giant Total recently received permits to drill 26 new wells in Tarrant County. DAVID KENT STAR-TELEGRAM ARCHIVES)