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After Long Debate, Dallas Tightens Drilling Rules

Dallas has significantly tightened its drilling rules, following years of debate about what natural gas production should look like inside its city limits — if it comes at all.

A well pad is flanked by Fort Worth's skyline on Sept. 27, 2013.

Dallas has significantly tightened its drilling rules, following years of debate about what natural gas production should look like inside its city limits — if it comes at all.

In a 9-6 vote on Wednesday, the City Council overhauled a natural gas drilling ordinance that, among other provisions, now requires a minimum 1,500-foot setback between “protected use” areas like homes, businesses and churches and new rigs and compressor stations. The setback is five times the previous buffer and matches a requirement in the suburb of Flower Mound as the strictest in North Texas.

Fort Worth, home to more than 1,700 producing wells, requires a 600-foot setback from new wells, though homes are closer in some areas where drilling started under less strict rules. Observers of the Dallas debate have pointed to that city as a model to either embrace or avoid.

States and the federal government regulate most aspects of drilling, including well integrity, pipeline safety, and the effects on air and water. Cities can regulate noise and control the location of wells or related sites like compressor stations. Unincorporated communities in Texas lack that power.

Though citizen activists in Dallas had pushed for even stricter regulations, some claimed the vote as a victory.

“It's established a clear alternative to the model that the [oil and gas] industry has touted over the past decades,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk, a local group that advocates for clean air. Schermbeck said Dallas' new rules were more carefully drawn and more science-based”  than those elsewhere. 

Industry backers called the new rules unworkable, saying the change will effectively bar any drilling within the city limits, depriving Dallas and its mineral holders of revenue gained in other cities that have embraced the industry. 

Council member Lee Kleinman, who voted against the ordinance after introducing a failed amendment to reduce the setback requirement, called the legislation “unreasonable and extremist."

“We might as well save a lot of paper and write a one-line ordinance, saying that there will be no gas drilling in the city of Dallas," he said at a hearing ahead of the council's vote. 

Some companies that spent millions of dollars planning to drill under Dallas’ old rules have said they feel cheated by the city’s shift on drilling. That includes Trinity East, which paid Dallas $19 million in 2008 to lease 3,500 acres of land and spent millions more on planning.

It was the only company to stick around as the city spent more than two years debating the overhaul. In August, however, the City Council rejected the company’s zoning permits, leaving its plans in limbo. 

“We’re sort of baffled,” Steve Fort, the company’s president, told the Tribune in October. “We feel like we paid for something here that we’re not receiving.” 

At that time, Fort said the company was weighing its options, including litigation, and “all of them are on the table.” Reached minutes after the Dallas vote, he said that was still the case. 

Whether the rules would keep out all drilling is an open question, as is how much money the city could reap from the Barnett Shale, which runs underneath the city's western outskirts. Low natural gas prices have slowed drilling in the region.

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