Fact-Checking the Dallas Drilling Debate

The temperature has been 105 degrees in the Metroplex for what feels like 105 straight days, but this afternoon, the Dallas City Council attempted to let cooler heads prevail in a briefing it organized on natural gas development. For months, the Council has been considering changes to the city’s oil and gas ordinance, and today it invited two panelists to speak about the proposed changes (And no, J.R. and the rest of the Ewings were not invited; they were too busy plotting their revenge against the Venezuelans who beat up John Ross).

The two panelists were Ed Ireland, with the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, and Terry Welch, a Dallas lawyer with Brown & Hofmeister, LLP. You can view Mr. Ireland’s prepared slides here, and Mr. Welch’s can be found here.

Ed’s presentation focused on several important facts about shale development, particularly in the Barnett Shale of north Texas: It’s a major source of employment (100,000 jobs over the past decade, including direct and indirect jobs), has generated billions of dollars in tax revenue, and boasts an impressive safety record. There have been more than 18,000 wells drilled into the Barnett Shale (including several thousand in the floodplains of the Trinity and Brazos Rivers), and there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of ground water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. And thanks to state-of-the-art air monitoring from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), we also know that Barnett development is not producing air emissions at a level that would impact public health.

That’s great news, and certainly something we should embrace and even encourage, right?

Not according to Mr. Welch. Indeed, Welch’s presentation focused on negative health and environmental impacts from development. Actually, to clarify, his presentation was all about impacts that may happen; little to no evidence was actually provided. Yet, Mr. Welch still wants the Council to believe that the impacts are very real – he’s just not sure if or even when they’ll ever materialize.

It’s also worth pointing out that Mr. Welch, as a member of the Gas Drilling Task Force, was actually presenting a minority report of the Task Force, which other members of the city’s Task Force felt was unfair. Those other members weren’t afforded the same opportunity to present their problems with the Task Force’s recommendations to the full City Council, a problem that Task Force Chair Lois Finkelman identified at the conclusion of the hearing.

But because we think evidence is important, here’s a sampling of the claims and recommendations made in Mr. Welch’s prepared slides, along with some important facts that folks in the Dallas area, including the City Council, might find useful:

WELCH: “Scientific studies currently differ as to the effect of gas drilling/hydraulic fracturing on human health, and doubt should be resolved in favor of public health and safety.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • Mr. Welch is creating doubt by decree, not based on hard evidence. Consider:
    • Associated Press: Hydraulic fracturing critics using bad science, experts say (AP, July 22, 2012)
    • NPR: Scientists say it’s “not clear” what is causing negative health impacts; evidence presented by opponents “doesn’t have much scientific heft” (NPR, May 2012)
    • Texas Dept. of State Health Services: The “pattern of VOC values was not consistent with a community-wide exposure to airborne contaminants, such as those that might be associated with natural gas drilling operations.” (DSHS report for Dish, TX, May 12, 2012)
    • Public Health Experts: “Health records indicate that while production increased, fewer residents were diagnosed with serious illnesses such as cancer, respiratory disease, strokes, and heart disease.” (Mickley/Blake report for Denton County, Oct. 2011)
    • TCEQ: “After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals…. [W]hen they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.” (TCEQ, 2010 [via EID])
    • Pennsylvania regulators “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” (Pa. DEP air quality reports, Nov. 2010 and Jan. 2011)
    • The bottom line: There are differing scientific studies on virtually every human activity. The question is whether the available evidence actually tilts toward one side or the other, and when it comes to shale development, the facts speak for themselves.

WELCH: “Imagine these setbacks in a Dallas neighborhood.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • Mr. Welch is attempting to frighten the public about a potential drill site in the middle of a jam-packed residential area. Luckily for the City of Dallas (and inconveniently for Mr. Welch) this supposition is completely divorced from reality.
  • There are no leases or proposed drilling sites located inside a dense neighborhood as Mr. Welch suggests here. It would have been just as erroneous to suggest a rig would be centered at City Hall – which, interestingly, Mr. Welch actually does earlier in his presentation.
  • Here’s what City Council Member Jerry Allen said in response to this information from Mr. Welch: “I don’t see the value of that slide.” Ouch!

WELCH: “Floodplains by definition are subject to flooding, and flooding of gas well sites may result in release of undisclosed hazardous chemicals, along with significant amounts of salt and hydrocarbons, into water channels.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • Notice the key phrasing – “may result” – in Mr. Welch’s slide. There is no evidence of this, but by suggesting there is a chance, he’s forcing the other side to prove a negative, which is impossible. This is essentially a rhetorical device, not a fact- or evidence-based observation.
  • What we do know is that, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, there are more than 4,300 oil and gas wells already located in floodplains in Tarrant, Dallas, Johnson, and Denton counties. To date there have been no significant impacts to water or floodways.

WELCH: “Drilling in the floodplain would allow drilling in the Trinity River corridor.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • Again, there are more than 4,300 oil and gas wells located in floodplains in Tarrant, Dallas, Johnson, and Denton counties. All of these wells in Tarrant, Dallas, and Denton counties are located in the Trinity River floodplain specifically (roughly half of the wells in floodplains in Johnson County are in the Brazos River floodplain). And again, there is no evidence of significant impacts to water supplies.

WELCH: “Dallas development regulations currently allow landfills and electrical substations in the floodplain; however, those activities are subject to several existing federal water pollution prevention laws that gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations are exempt from.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • It’s difficult to know which laws Mr. Welch is referencing, but his suggestion that oil and gas development are “exempt” from water pollution laws is categorically false.
  • For example, waste from oil and gas operations is tightly regulated by individual states and federal hazardous waste laws. Any waste sent to public treatment plants must pretreatment guidelines established by EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. If the waste is not sent to a treatment plant and instead sent to an underground injection well, the U.S. EPA already tightly regulates that process – which the EPA also says is a “safe and inexpensive option” for wastewater disposal.
  • Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator: “[Hydraulic fracturing] requires smart regulation, smart rules of the road. What it doesn’t necessarily require…is that all that smart rule of the road setting be done at the federal level. There are states that have been regulating oil and gas development for a long time.” (Remarks at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, February 2012 [via Truthland])
  • Steve Heare, Director of EPA’s Drinking Water Protection Division: “I have no information that states aren’t doing a good job already [with regulating hydraulic fracturing].” (Houston Chronicle, February 2010)

WELCH: “All parkland is valuable and a limited public commodity, and if drilling is allowed, that area may be diminished or effectively eliminated as parkland for decades.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • Once again, Mr. Welch has created a hypothetical (“…may be diminished…”) and then advances an argument based on a situation that doesn’t exist.
  • Here’s a picture of a completed and reclaimed well site in the Barnett Shale in Burleson, TX. Was the land “effectively eliminated” for recreational use? Hardly. Fore!

WELCH: “If these concerns are later determined to be without merit, the City Council may amend its ordinances accordingly.” (Welch prepared slides, Aug 1, 2012)

  • It seems even Mr. Welch lacks confidence in his own dire assessment, to the point that he’s flat out stating that his claims could very well “be without merit” in practice.
  • This is also a dangerous method of approaching public policy. Companies have already paid more than $33 million to the City of Dallas for oil and gas leases, which the city then used to pay down its debt. Arbitrarily changing the terms underlying those leases – on the dubious basis that the Council can simply “amend” the new rules later – means the city would be reneging on its promises to companies looking to invest further in the City of Dallas. Is that the kind of investment climate the City wants to promote?
  • The City Council has an obligation to enact (or uphold) ordinances that are in the best interest of the city, not to experiment with the community on the misguided assumption that the damage it causes can be wished away through another set of amendments later down the road.

It’s one thing to exercise caution when making decisions, but it’s quite another to hide behind a wall of uncertainty (real or perceived) to justify serious restrictions or even outright bans on certain types of activity. What Mr. Welch has presented is not a list of proven impacts of development, but is instead largely a series of hypotheticals designed to frighten the City Council through manufactured uncertainty. And then he suggests that if his proposals end up being too burdensome, they can just be adjusted later – as if there are no repercussions in the interim. Does anyone really believe that would be the case?

Because the facts and the data don’t back them up, opponents of development in Dallas (and across the country, really) are trying to shift the burden of proof away from themselves and onto the industry. They suggest that it’s not necessary to prove their statements about negative impacts, but it is the responsibility of the industry to prove a negative (i.e. “There’s no evidence of water contamination? Prove it!”). This is not only absurd; it’s also not a legitimate basis for any meaningful public policy discussion.

Besides: If the damage and destruction to which Mr. Welch repeatedly alluded in his slides (and which opponents have similarly referenced) were actually happening, wouldn’t he have mentioned the specific examples?

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