Earlier today, the Dallas City Council passed what has been dubbed a “drilling ordinance” that establishes new “rules” for shale development within the city’s limits. Unfortunately, the City Council refused to be honest with area residents about what they were really doing: banning hydraulic fracturing.
Prospective shale development in Dallas has been discussed for years, ever since Trinity East paid the city nearly $20 million back in 2008 for a lease to develop natural gas. The city changed course, though, and refused to issue the necessary permits until it could draft, hone, and implement new rules on drilling and development.
The City Council ultimately came up with a plan that creates, among other things, a 1,500-foot setback requirement, establishing the distance that any proposed well must be from a house. To put that in context, the setback requirement in nearby Fort Worth — where a significant amount of Barnett Shale development has safely occurred for many years — is 600 feet. The Dallas plan would essentially require that any well site be surrounded by a buffer zone equivalent to the area of AT&T Stadium (where the Dallas Cowboys play) and its surrounding parking lot.
Clearly, this is a de facto ban — but it has largely been reported in the media and sold to the Council’s constituents as a path forward that simply establishes strong rules. The Dallas Morning News ran an editorial earlier this month calling the ordinance “balanced” and “reasonable.” Meanwhile, the New York Times took the bait entirely: “Dallas officials say they have no intention of banning drilling and are simply being cautious.”
The reality is that anti-fracking groups (and their political allies) are pushing for these types of bans across the country by any means necessary — even if it relies on dishonesty. Thankfully, those measures have often been defeated. But in areas without any development, activists still push for explicit bans, cognizant of the fact that few residents (if any) have family-sustaining jobs connected to shale development. But in areas where honesty would not sell, activists push for “ordinances” that are literally so restrictive that they are, for all intents and purposes, complete bans — which is exactly what happened in Dallas this week.
The reason for this strategy — deceptively calling for “rules” instead of a ban, when the hidden agenda is still a ban — should be obvious: Most people do not want to ban development. They know oil and natural gas help power their cars, heat their homes, and provide high-paying jobs for their friends and neighbors. They want more energy security, and domestic production of oil and natural gas helps achieve that.
But activists know if they sell a ban as “strong rules” to guarantee “responsible development” they’ll win support. Deceptive? Yes. Effective? Unfortunately, yes. Ironically, the industry is supportive of reasonable rules, as compromises with environmental groups in Illinois, Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere have proven.
Of course, the Dallas City Council was not the first set of municipal leaders to align with anti-fracking activism in this manner — it wasn’t even the first in the Metroplex. The suburb of Flower Mound passed its own measure back in 2011, and the Dallas Morning News reported that “it’s unclear how many new gas wells will be drilled in Flower Mound under the new rules.” A separate Morning News piece said that all potential new development came to a “stop” after the ordinance passed. The city of Southlake, after “lifting” its moratorium, likewise maintained an unreasonable setback requirement (the distance a well must be from certain structures) that has been a barrier to new drilling.
What opponents of shale development hope is that residents don’t realize that they’re supporting a ban until it’s too late. When the ordinance passed today, a local organizer for the anti-fracking group Earthworks celebrated on Twitter: “De facto fracking ban passes in Dallas.”
Indeed it did. But didn’t the people of Dallas deserve more from their own City Council — you know, like honesty?