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Dallas News Editorial: Despite industry protests, go-slow drilling plan is right one

May 17, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Signs are abundant that natural gas producers need an image makeover. Local governments across North Texas are sounding alarms about the possibility of increased air pollution, groundwater contamination, noise and declining property values coinciding with drilling companies’ push into urban areas.

These concerns are not overblown, as reports in The Dallas Morning News and Denton-Record Chronicle have borne out. But the industry’s tendency has too often been to deny, deflect and use judicial bullying to get its way.

Such tactics aren’t exactly winning friends:

— The negative experiences of other North Texas cities that more hastily approved drilling have caused the Dallas City Council to apply the brakes until it can get key questions answered. The council is forming a task force to study the issues before taking steps to permit drilling on city-owned sites leased by two production companies, which have paid $33 million for the privilege.

— Last week the Dallas County Commissioners Court adopted a resolution demanding answers about links between gas production and air quality.

— The two remaining candidates in the Dallas mayor’s race have both said a drilling moratorium is an option if concerns aren’t addressed.

It’s time that the industry acknowledge the extra challenges of drilling in urban areas and work to mitigate environmental concerns.

Foremost among them is air pollution. North Texas already is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a non-attainment zone, meaning air pollution levels exceed federal limits. A 2009 study by Al Armendariz then a Southern Methodist University professor and now this region’s EPA administrator, found that the surge in production to exploit the Barnett Shale’s estimated 37 trillion cubic feet of natural gas has significantly boosted the region’s air-quality problems.

A broader EPA study is due next year on the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, the process used to get gas from shale.

The industry makes no secret of its displeasure over the environmental question. Take this response by Jeff Neu, spokesman for XTO, one of the companies with leases in Dallas: “Unfortunately, there has been a distortion of the facts by some opponents who ignore the industry’s proven track record of safely and responsibly developing our nation’s gas resources while creating jobs.”

As the recent newspaper reports show, the picture is not that clear.

Drillers’ steady encroachment on urban and suburban residents, including the 6 million people who live atop the Barnett Shale, justifies the go-slow approach favored by the Dallas City Council — an approach several other North Texas cities now wish they had taken. A moratorium on drilling, pending results of the EPA study, should not be taken off the table.

The need for alternative energy sources is critical, but not at the expense of air that’s clean enough to breathe.

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