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Who benefits from gas drilling in Flower Mound?

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On August 10, 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation imposed a $952,500 fine on Williams Gas Pipeline following a September 2008 natural gas pipeline rupture and subsequent fire in Appomattox, Virginia.  Five people were injured, 23 families were evacuated and two homes were destroyed in the incident.

Last September, Cabot Oil & Gas was fined $56,650 and forced to suspend its hydraulic fracturing operations in Dimock Township, Pa., after spilling more than 8,000 gallons of a hazardous water/liquid gel mixture over nine days.  Two months later, the state of Pennsylvania fined Cabot another $120,000 for contaminating 13 homeowner water wells.  One of the wells blew up. 

In the early morning hours of November 5, 2009, a pipeline owned by El Paso Natural Gas exploded in Bushland, Texas, destroying one home, damaging two others, and sending three people to the hospital.  The explosion produced a 10-story fireball and a massive blaze visible from 20 miles away.

Other incidents tied to gas drilling, especially the fracturing process used to extract natural gas from shale formations, have been reported in Colorado, Wyoming, New York and elsewhere. In fact, over the past half-dozen years, more than 1,000 documented incidences of water contamination in the western U.S. have been linked to hydraulic fracturing.

Accidents happen.  Even to Williams Production, the company at the epicenter of the drilling controversy now roiling the Town of Flower Mound.

Calling these catastrophic incidents to your attention doesn’t make me a fear-monger, an alarmist, a Communist, a tree hugger, unpatriotic or, worst of all ‘round these parts, a liberal. 

Yet these and other less-savory epithets have been hurled at my fellow drilling opponents and me by the friendly folks who are relentlessly expanding their drilling operations closer and closer to our homes, schools and waterways.

Williams Production’s apologists – the vast majority of whom appear to be retired empty-nesters with substantial acreage on the west side of town – are fond of lecturing their younger neighbors about the many benefits drilling offers to “everyone.”   It’s funny how greed can cloud one’s perception.

Many of these same folks who years ago argued against the development of Bridlewood, Wellington and other higher-density neighborhoods in their beloved Flower Mound now get positively misty-eyed about the many blessings afforded by the drilling rigs, tanker trucks, storage tanks and compression facilities on or near their properties.  They stand on their mineral rights soapboxes, draped in the U.S. Constitution, wagging their fingers at those who would dare keep them from exploiting the full value of their property.

But here’s the thing.  Nobody I know would object to a landowner’s right to profit from his mineral rights so long as doing so does not encroach upon the rights of others. 

Want to allow Williams to use a controversial drilling method known as fracking hundreds of feet from your home?  Have at it, my friend!  Just don’t ask to build a massive collection facility across town to store the millions of gallons of toxic water produced by those wells.  Don’t ask to run pipelines across my property to transport that toxic wastewater, either.  Don’t expect the homeowners who abut your land to compromise their personal safety when Williams seeks to violate the town’s 1,000-foot setback ordinance by drilling within a few hundred feet of their back yards.

You may not be overly concerned about open gas valves, pipeline ruptures, storage tank explosions or other accidents that could threaten the health and safety of your fellow Flower Mound residents.  It’s easy to gamble when you’re receiving hefty royalty checks from Williams each month. 

Pardon us if we don’t pledge our allegiance to your sugar daddy.

The sad truth is Williams’ duty is to its shareholders.  Your personal welfare and Flower Mound’s long-term survival are not their concern.  Sure, you’re getting paid handsomely for your trouble.  After all, you deserve to be compensated for permanently spoiling your beautiful land.

All the while, the robber barons from Tulsa will smile and tell you exactly what you want to hear, because they’re desperate to get to the huge deposits of natural gas that lie a mile beneath your property.

Ever wonder what their rush is?  After all, the gas has been there for thousands of years, and it’s not going anywhere.

Here are just a few reasons:

1.  Natural gas futures prices are trending up.  Given the unpredictability of the markets, Williams needs to cash in while times are good.  If gas prices suddenly plunge, as they did in mid-2008, drilling in the Barnett Shale may no longer be profitable.  The pressure is surely intensifying at Williams headquarters after the company disappointed Wall Street with its fourth-quarter results.

2.  Regulatory pressures are mounting.  The U.S. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency have recently begun re-thinking the wisdom of the “Halliburton Loophole,” which exempts oil and gas companies from having to comply with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and a host of other laws designed to protect public health.  In addition, a bill known as the “FRAC Act,” now pending in Congress, would lift the veil of secrecy on the contents of the wastewater produced by the fracking process.  Williams knows that being forced to reveal the 250-plus toxic chemicals it uses to frack its wells would be a public relations nightmare.  Having to post “hazardous materials” placards on dozens of trucks rumbling down Flower Mound’s neighborhood roads might stoke the natives’ outrage even more.

3.  The citizens have woken up, and they’re organizing quickly.  While the vast majority of Flower Mound residents weren’t paying attention, Williams convinced the town’s Oil & Gas Board of Appeals to approve variances on all but one of the 32 wells it has drilled, according to recent public testimony.  In other words, the “exemplary” restrictions our Town Council put in place to protect its citizens, trumpeted at every opportunity by Mayor Jody Smith and her fellow drilling advocates on the Council, have been waived to accommodate nearly every well Williams has drilled in Flower Mound!  It makes you wonder what good it is to have regulations in the first place.  It also raises questions as to why these variances are so routinely granted, at least for Williams.

It’s been well-publicized that Mayor Smith and Mayor Pro Tem Jean Levenick have leased their mineral rights to Williams.  So has Carlos Cabre, a member of the Oil & Gas Board of Appeals who was dismissed from his position earlier this week after failing to recuse himself from votes concerning Williams.

Meanwhile, attorney Jeff Tasker, a member of the Town Council from 2005 to 2009, has been retained as a representative by Williams and is regularly seen at public sessions of the council alongside his deep-pocketed clients.  Well now, isn’t that special?

Is Tasker now assisting Williams in its pending lawsuit against the town he formerly served?  Is Cabre about to be invited into the Williams fraternity?  Inquiring minds want to know. 

Something stinks in Flower Mound, and it’s not just the toxic emissions coming from the wells.

It’s gotten so bad that even some homeowners who signed contracts with Williams have begun speaking out in opposition to the company’s proposals.  They complain about misrepresentations, errors of omission, and outright lies told by representatives of the company.

They’ve done the calculations and figured out that the checks they receive from Williams amount to chump change when compared to the decline in their homes’ market values.   They worry about reports of hazardous levels of cancer-causing benzene detected at sites across the Barn
ett Shale.  They’ve met many of the five kids and two adults in Flower Mound who’ve been diagnosed with leukemia since 2005. 

They’ve heard that Texas has 273,600 wells and only 106 regulators to oversee them.  Each well is inspected just once every three years, on average, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.  That means the gas industry is, for all practical purposes, responsible for policing itself. 

That’s all well and good when they’re drilling in the middle of nowhere.  But when the wells come within a few hundred feet of homes, schools and parks, the margin for error is unacceptably thin. 

As we’ve seen, accidents happen.  Even to Williams, as the fine folks in Appomattox, Va., can attest. 

Nobody wants the next catastrophic natural gas accident to occur in Flower Mound.  Nobody wants another child to be diagnosed with leukemia.

That’s why the concerned citizens of Flower Mound are banding together in a battle for the town’s future.  This weekend, the Flower Mound Cares Petition Association, a non-profit civic organization, officially kicks off a petition drive seeking a temporary moratorium on the approval of permits for new pipelines and centralized collection facilities.  We want to be certain that before Williams goes any further, proper safeguards are in place to protect public health and safety.  Signatures from roughly 5,600 registered voters are needed within 45 days to force the Town Council to enact the moratorium or put the issue up for popular vote.

Volunteers will be manning information booths and petition-signing stations at sites across town between 10 AM and 6 PM Saturday and Sunday.  Those interested in more detail, as well as a list of petition-signing locations, may visit http://mysite.verizon.net/fmcares or join the Flower Mound Cares Facebook group at:  www.flowermoundcares.com.                                                                                                                         

Drilling is enriching a few property owners in Flower Mound, along with an Oklahoma-based gas conglomerate and its legion of lawyers, consultants and lobbyists.  For all its efforts, the Town of Flower Mound earned a paltry $521,000 in fees and incremental property taxes in 2009.  The rest of us are left with a plethora of short- and long-term risks, both known and unknown.

It’s not worth it.  It’s time to make a stand.  

Ladd Biro is a syndicated sports columnist and small business owner who has lived in Flower Mound since 2002.  He can be reached at lbiro@championmgt.com.

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