Controversial gas drilling permits could get reconsideration in Dallas
Dallas News, (January 4, 2013) – Late last month, Dallas’ City Plan Commission rejected a request by Trinity East Energy for three special-use permits to drill for natural gas in the Trinity River floodplain in northwest Dallas.
But the Plan Commission’s chairman, Joe Alcantar, asked the city staff Friday to bring the Trinity East permits up for reconsideration at the commission’s next scheduled hearing on Thursday. The move is sure to raise alarms among those concerned about drilling’s environmental impact and particularly about Trinity East’s request to drill in the floodplain, on city parkland and close to businesses and recreational facilities.
Alcantar, who supported granting the permits to Trinity East, confirmed that he wants the commission to take the issue up again. “There are still some areas we need to look at and make sure we did a good thorough job,” he said.
Jim Schermbeck, director of the environmental advocacy group Downwinders at Risk, blamed Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Manager Mary Suhm for trying to snatch a victory for the gas drilling company.
“The mayor and city manager are desperate to have this pass the Plan Commission level to give them cover at the council level,” he said. “It’s just not good government.”
The council is set to vote on the permits Jan. 23. Alcantar said he did not discuss the matter with Rawlings. The mayor has said he intends to support granting the permits to Trinity East, suggesting the company may not drill before its lease expires in 2014 because of depressed natural gas prices.
During its Dec. 20 meeting, the Plan Commission voted 7-5 against approving Trinity East’s permit applications. It then took a second, unanimous vote to deny them. If that denial stands, Trinity East will need the votes of a supermajority on the City Council, 12 members, to win the permits. But if the Plan Commission reconsiders and approves the permits, then a simple majority of the council could push them through.
Concern about drilling’s impact, and public outcry over it, has left many council members wary about drilling and unlikely to support it on city land. The likelihood that 12 council members would approve the permits is remote at best.
The city has been embroiled in controversy over natural gas drilling for years. In 2008, Suhm crafted an agreement with two companies, Trinity East and XTO Energy, to lease city land for drilling in return for a $33 million upfront payment. XTO withdrew applications for permits last year, but Trinity East has indicated it intends to act on its leases.
“We have a contractual obligation with the city on these gas leases, and we need to move forward,” said Dallas Cothrum, the company’s zoning consultant.
In 2011, after concerns about drilling had heightened, the council appointed a task force to recommend changes to the city’s gas drilling ordinance. The council has yet to consider those recommendations, however, so the Plan Commission has been forced to take up permit applications under an ordinance that is widely considered outdated and inadequate.
It’s not clear how the Plan Commission would vote if the matter were to come before the body again. Two commissioners, John Shellene and Liz Walley, were absent during the first vote. Commissioner Paul Ridley said that the special-use permit request raises myriad concerns and that he’s not likely to change his vote for denial.
“The most immediate [concern] was that we could not approve the gas drilling SUPs because they were contrary to existing ordinance,” he said.
The current ordinance prohibits drilling in parkland and floodplains. Trinity East is seeking to drill both in the floodplain and on city-owned parkland. Also, Ridney said, “There are numerous issues about noise, air and water pollution and the overall environmental effect on nearby property owners and users.”
The Plan Commission also needs to review the findings of the City Council-appointed Gas Drilling Task Force, Ridley said. Cothrum said the reconsideration is only fair. At the last hearing, he said, commissioners were frustrated with the council for pushing the gas drilling controversy on them. “We felt like some of the members voted against the request not on the merits but based on how they received it from council,” he said.
Schermbeck said opponents are ready to fight the plan again. And he believes the commission will once more see things their way. “If they stick to their guns, this vote should be even more lopsided in our favor,” he said.