Webinar to discuss shale-gas drilling in urban areas

May 14, 2010

The acronym NIMBY -- "Not in My Back Yard" -- is a battle cry commonly hurled by neighbors at any nearby controversy. But when the controversy murmurs simultaneously across multiple neighborhoods in the same city, the expanding chorus of affected neighbors can create an industrial-strength din.

Such was the case in Fort Worth, Texas, where prior to 2000, there were no gas wells in town. Ten years later, there are 1,675 shale-gas wells within city limits, according to Sarah Fullenwider, senior assistant city attorney for the City of Fort Worth.

She said some Fort Worth citizens who have signed gas leases are frustrated with the local process and controls.

"Many have signed leases and want the financial benefits of extracting the minerals, so they want drilling to take place," she said. "But they don't want the impacts of a well near their homes. They are frustrated with the ability of cities to implement local controls considering Texas laws regarding the dominant mineral estate."

Fullenwider will be the featured speaker during a free Web-based seminar titled, "Lessons from Gas Drilling in an Urban Environment," which will air Thursday, May 20, at 1 p.m. Sponsored by Penn State Cooperative Extension, the "webinar" will provide an overview of Fort Worth's experience as shale-gas companies in Texas began setting up drilling operations within city limits.

Information about how to register for the webinar is available at http://naturalgas.extension.psu.edu/Events.htm. Online participants will have the opportunity to ask the speaker questions during the session.

Fullenwider said she hopes her experience working with Texas municipalities on Barnett Shale-gas extraction will have some relevance to Pennsylvanians working with the Marcellus Shale-gas boom.

Fullenwider, who has worked in Fort Worth since 1997, authored the city's first gas-drilling ordinance in 2001 and has chaired several drilling task forces charged with revising the municipal drilling ordinance as in-city drilling operations mushroomed.

"We received our first application in early 2000 for drilling in the north part of the city," Fullenwider said, "which we handled through a zoning process. When we got a second application, we put a moratorium in place and did not grant any additional permits until the City Council adopted an ordinance."

Fullenwider said that creating the ordinance wasn't as difficult in the beginning because citizens and industry representatives worked together in a task force and because of the rural nature of gas drilling at the time.

"We took the City Council and staff out to drill sites, the industry explained the process, and we had many public hearings," she said. "The drilling was only in one or two nonurbanized areas, and no one predicted that it would move into more highly urbanized areas in the core of city."

Before 2004, there were not many complaints about the impacts of gas drilling, and she noted that the core principals worked well until late 2004, when there was a sharp increase in the number of drilling operations being moved into the more-populated areas of the city.

Fullenwider said as a result of public dissatisfaction with noise, dust, traffic, lights, water usage and other environmental concerns that had not been predicted, the city twice has reconvened the task force to fine-tune its first local drilling ordinance. Additionally, the city has convened an Air Quality Committee to recommend a consultant to test air emissions around gas facilities.

Recent Penn State Cooperative Extension studies of Marcellus Shale-gas exploration have contrasted the regional differences between northeastern Pennsylvania, where population density averages 50 persons per square mile, and the southwestern part of the state, where population averages about 200 people per square mile.

The city of Forth Worth, on the other hand, is roughly 10 times more densely populated, with about 2,060 people per square mile. The city covers approximately 350 square miles, and its estimated population is 721,000.

In 2009, the number of in-city wells in Fort Worth outnumbered the total Marcellus wells in all of Pennsylvania. There were 326 wells drilled in the northeast counties last year, 10 fewer than the 336 wells drilled in southwestern part of the state. It is estimated that an additional 1,750 wells will be drilled statewide in 2010, according to the industry trade group Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Within Fort Worth city limits, there are 1,339 producing wells, according to Fullenwider. There are 446 permitted but not yet producing, and 60 more applying for permits, she said. She also noted that there were 30 wells which have been plugged and decommissioned, bringing the current total to 1,675 active wells within city limits.

Fullenwider recommended that cities put serious thought into planning for pipelines in neighborhoods and in city streets. Pipeline companies have the power of eminent domain in Texas, and many citizens were concerned about high-pressure pipelines in their front yards and through their neighborhoods. The city worked with the state highway commission to relocate a pipeline to run along the state highway instead of through a neighborhood, she said.

The city of Fort Worth levied a 600-foot setback provision in its ordinance for protected-use areas -- including hospitals, churches, schools and residences -- which are subject to additional controls on noise, operating hours and lighting. The ordinance also specifies that no gas well can be within 200 feet of a fresh water well.

Fullenwider recommends that cities include noise provisions in their gas drilling ordinances and that they adjust those values as wells become more urbanized. She also advises municipalities to look at the impact of gas-well drilling on city streets in terms of noise, traffic, increased use and wear-and-tear on road surfaces.

She stressed that, if possible, cities should look at an overall drilling plan for the entire city to determine where to place additional drilling sites, what to do with sites when wells are plugged and abandoned, and what the future impact on development might be if sites can't be built upon after a well has been drilled.

Fullenwider identified two other major concerns: apportioning revenues and what to do with wastewater associated with drilling. "Saltwater coming back from wells either has to be disposed of through an injection well, or you have to get involved in truck issues," she said. Cities need to determine whether they can place a disposal well within the city, run saltwater pipelines through the city to a disposal site, or accommodate the truck traffic associated with huge amounts of water removal, she explained.

Apportioning the revenues from gas-well exploration can fuel many additional debates, Fullenwider said. "What do you do with money that municipalities receive? Do you spend it now or later? If you drill under a park, does the revenue go to benefit that particular park or the park system throughout the city?" she asked. "If you have federal or state grants, there are restrictions on where the money can be used, so you need to consider whether to take grants or not. If you take a grant for the park, the revenue for the park has to stay with the park."

Despite these thorny questions, Fullenwider stated that the economics of gas-well drilling have been good for the region and have provided a cash flow for the city. "Some really good things have happened," she said. "Jobs, the economic boom because of gas drilling, the money brought into the city; plus, energy companies have contributed to things like park enhancements and historic building rehabilitation, and they contribute to nonprofit organizations and public interests such as Race for the Cure and the city's annual Christmas parade.

"Looking back on it, we'd try to get the state more involved in adopting regulations at the state level. We've had drilling all throughout state, but we're the first city to deal with highly urbanized drilling," she said.

The "Lessons from Gas Drilling in an Urban Environment" webinar is part of an ongoing series of workshops addressing issues related to the state's Marcellus shale gas boom. One-hour webinars also will be held at 1 p.m. on the following dates:

June 17: "Water Quality Monitoring Programs in PA: Susquehanna River Basin Commission's Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network"; Presenter: Andrew Gavin, Susquehanna River Basin Commission, and "River Alert Information Network (RAIN) in Southwestern PA"; Presenter: Jeanne VanBriesen, Carnegie Mellon University.

July 15: "Natural Gas Development Land Use Controls in Lycoming County"; Presenter: Kurt Hausammann, Lycoming County Planning Commission.

August 19: "Local Natural Gas Task Force Initiatives"; Presenters: Mark Smith, Bradford County; Pam Tokar-Ickles, Somerset County; and Paul Heimel, Potter County.

Sept. 16: "Natural Gas Experiences of Marcellus Residents: Preliminary Results from the Community Satisfaction Survey"; Presenter: Kathy Brasier, Penn State.

Previous webinars, which covered topics such as water use and quality, gas-leasing considerations for landowners and implications for local communities, can be viewed at http://naturalgas.extension.psu.edu/webinars.htm.

For more information, contact Joann Kowalski, extension educator in Susquehanna County, at 570-278-1158 or by e-mail at jmk20@psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 17, 2010