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From the Sidelines: Gas Drilling in Double Oak

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We finally had our meeting on Aug. 16 to consider the request for a Special Use Permit (SUP) from Williams to expand the existing pad site on Simmons Road.  Permission to drill at that site had already been awarded to Red Oak so technically the request deals only with site issues.

Crossroads Bible Church allowed the town to use the church for our meeting. There was ample room for everyone attending to listen and participate. There was even parking and coffee for everyone.  We had a nice crowd.  Not as many as are accommodated for a Sunday service but compared to our usual handful of regular attendees it was a vast multitude!

It was a good meeting.  Mayor Pro-tem Tom Pidcock did a masterful job of running the meeting.  There was never any doubt that he was in control the entire evening.  The Planning and Zoning Committee chaired by Steve Howard joined the council and town staff on the stage and quorums were present from both bodies.  That might have been a problem because many of our residents have signed gas leases from Williams.  Two members of the P&Z and two more from the Town Council had to recuse themselves and were absent because they have gas leases and wanted to avoid any perception of ethics violations.

The meeting started with a joint public hearing chaired by Steve Howard concerning the SUP application.  Everyone that signed up to speak received three minutes timed by Assistant Town Secretary Eileen Kennedy using yellow and red markers to signal the time used.  Even before attendees got to speak, the Williams engineer got 15 minutes to explain the request followed by a 15 minute rebuttal by an anti-drilling organization. 

I was thrilled and proud of my neighbors speaking both for and against the SUP.  Residents had done their homework.  Our ordinances were quoted in detail as to requirements and dreadful lapses by the gas industry were illuminated.  The speakers were courteous and finished when the allotted time was up.  I did not notice any discourteous or disruptive behavior that has occurred at other towns.  This is an emotional issue but emotions were kept in check.

My friend and neighbor, Bonnie Finkle, spoke against the SUP.  Bonnie HAS a gas lease on two acres and as such would potentially have some financial gain if the SUP was approved yet had strong reservations about the drilling.  And so it went.

Councilman and attorney John Dondrea, also a lease holder who had recused himself from the council spoke both for and against the SUP.  His position was much like mine. 

John is special.  All of us on council at the time the ordinance was crafted worked diligently on the town drilling ordinance, but John, using his skills as an attorney, studied it as well as ordinances from all over North Texas to make our effort the best that we could do.  It is a good ordinance.  It may not be perfect, but try to find one that is!  John wasn’t the only person attending that worked on the ordinance.  Town Attorney David Berman was there as were Tom Pidcock and Tracy Miller.  All have spent quality time with the ordinance.  The same can be said for the Planning and Zoning Commission.  I believe both Chairman Steve Howard and Regis Kruger worked on the ordinance as well.

The reason that the ordinances are so important is that they allow the town to have some control, in this case, of the drilling and the site.  If drilling happens in unincorporated Denton County, the county has no right to impose restrictions.  The only operable rules are state rules.  Even for a town, if an application for any kind of permit, including the SUP, meets or exceeds the ordinance requirements, the town has little recourse except to approve.

Williams did a good job informing the public, specifically lease holders, about the meeting.  Someone, presumably from Williams passed out signs saying, “YES.”  Neither John nor I wore a “YES” sign.  I might have been interested in a “YES, BUT” sign. 

The drilling industry has earned a really bad reputation.  Our state laws could be much stronger.  I am not against drilling if it can be done safely keeping pollution – including noise pollution – under control.

The site plan looks good in the diagrams and should certainly improve the site as it looks today.  Carruth Estates, which is just to the west of the drill site, has always had small amounts of water coming down from the east property line.  I have believed without proof that this was water from the tank on the Meece property.  Bob Meese initially had it built for the magnificent geese that he attracted to the area.  To keep it full of water, he maintains a small well.

Williams plans to make that tank much deeper and line it to keep it from leaking.  That should help Carruth Estates residents.  The dirt that they dig out of the tank will be used to make berms to screen the drill site.  They’ve planned to plant trees and other vegetation on the irrigated berms, again to make the site more attractive.

Many of the comments against the drilling complained about our state laws, state inspections and monitoring.  They were good comments.  If the same comments could be directed to our state representatives it would be helpful.  The Town of Double Oak has to live within the existing legal structure.

What the town did do was to question Williams of their intent in a number of areas of concern.  During the meeting, Williams personnel agreed to perform above and beyond their legal requirements.  That was impressive in itself.  Even more impressive was their pledge to put all of these commitments in writing.

I probably enjoyed the meeting more than many attendees both for and against the drilling.  For example, P&Z recommended to the council that the SUP be approved, but qualified their approval with an action list.  Instead, after extended questions from Town Council and testimony from Williams’ personnel, council voted to table the issue until Williams could put their verbal commitments into writing.  Getting the commitments in writing may not be a legal requirement for enforcement.  The commitments were made as testimony in a formal meeting. The meeting audio was recorded.  Still, putting commitments in writing helps clarify both the commitment and the intent.

Williams and attendees supporting the SUP didn’t like that the decision was put off.  After all, drilling is a complex project.  Drill rigs are scheduled well in advance and if the site is not ready, the drill rig moves on.  Still, when neither side is fully satisfied the meeting result might be considered balanced.

I’ve commented on performance by the crowd, by P&Z and the council. Additionally, in my opinion, the performance of Williams’ personnel was excellent.  I’ve attended many of these affairs.  Typically, vendors put on a polished ‘dog and pony’ show with more spin than substance.  I didn’t see that at this meeting.  Instead, technical people talked straight about their problems and successes.  They talked about training problems and accidents, but best of all, explained lessons learned and action taken.  Williams Team Lead, Marilyn Rhodes, even put me in touch with Williams Engineer Sean Barzas before the meeting to answer questions about how the aquifer is sealed and about cement bond logs.

If the SUP is approved, we’ll get to see how it actually turns out.  Are they as good as they say?  Will they perform as committed?  Time will tell.  I will tell you this:  I’m more impressed with Williams’ personnel than I was with TCEQ and Railroad Commission representatives that were brought in from the state to educate us about drilling on another occasion.

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