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A Backlash Against Drilling, in the Oil and Gas Heartland

Texans pride themselves on being the heart of the nation’s oil and gas business. But even here, public concern about the environmental consequences of natural gas drilling is growing.

Demonstrators protest against natural gas drilling in downtown Fort Worth, Wednesday April 20th, 2011. The day marked the one year anniversary of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

FORT WORTH — Texans pride themselves on being the heart of the nation’s oil and gas business. But even here, public concern about natural gas drilling is growing.

On Wednesday, several dozen protesters marched through downtown Fort Worth, waving signs and chanting anti-drilling slogans that reflected concern over air and water pollution.

The anxiety centers on a recently expanded drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is now used in more than half of new gas wells drilled in Texas. This practice — which involves blasting water, sand and chemicals far underground to break up rock and extract gas — is common in the Barnett Shale, a major shale-gas field around Fort Worth.

 “It’s our health that’s at stake,” said Dana Schultes, who lives in south Fort Worth and worries about the impact of the drilling on her young daughter.

The protest, organized by the group Rising Tide North Texas, is the latest sign of a backlash against drilling in Texas. Recently, yard signs saying “Get the Frack Out of Here” and “Protect Our Kids / No Drilling” have appeared in some yards in Southlake, a Dallas suburb. A few communities have declared temporary moratoriums on drilling permits, and Dallas last week set up a task force to examine drilling regulations within its city limits.

Analysts say that the recent discontent in Texas appears to be partly inspired by highly publicized concerns in Pennsylvania, a state unaccustomed to drilling and where fracking has recently increased. The federal government is also raising concerns: The Environmental Protection Agency is beginning a study about the method’s effect on groundwater, and a report for congressional Democrats released last week detailed the quantity of chemicals that gas companies are putting into the ground.

Lease payments by gas companies have also dropped significantly in Texas since natural gas prices hit highs in 2008, said Mike Slattery, the director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Texas Christian University — even as gas production rises in Texas. 

Gas companies say fracking is safe, but some acknowledge that changes are needed.

“For the most part, I would view these as self-inflicted wounds,” said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, a drilling company, speaking about the industry generally. Gas companies, he said, have existed under the radar for a long time but now need to be more responsive to public concerns. 

The Fort Worth protesters ended up at Range’s offices. It was targeted, an organizer said, partly because it is one of the drilling companies with headquarters in the city. Range is also the subject of an ongoing battle between the EPA and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operations in the state. In December the EPA accused Range of contaminating two water wells in Parker County, west of Fort Worth. Range denied the accusations, and the Railroad Commission investigated and cleared the company. However, the EPA case is ongoing.

City governments are getting more involved. Fort Worth, which has just under 2,000 gas wells within city limits, expects this summer to complete a study of drilling’s impact on air quality. Dallas, on the edge of the Barnett Shale, so far has no wells, but gas companies are keen to drill — hence the establishment of the task force this week, which may deliver recommendations to the City Council this fall on drilling regulations.

Gas drillers are also facing extra scrutiny in Austin, where lawmakers are considering whether to reduce a tax break for “high cost” natural gas drilling, like hydraulic fracturing. The break cuts the amount of severance tax paid by many gas companies.

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