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Backlash in the Barnett Shale

A decade of drilling created an economic boom, but also left some feeling duped.
By Steve Kaskovich |
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The scene in Denton wasn’t exactly what actor Tommy Lee Jones had in mind when he urged us all to “Get Behind the Barnett Shale” in a 2008 advertising campaign paid for by Chesapeake Energy. More than 400 people crammed into City Hall on the evening of July 15, many urging that, instead, the council get behind a ban on hydraulic fracturing.

Residents complained about rigs being too close to homes, too loud, too polluting. Speakers for the oil and gas industry, including a former  chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, claimed that drillers are within their rights and that a ban would not hold up in court.

When the council voted around 3 a.m. to reject the ban and send the matter to voters in November, it appeared that the industry had at least won the day. But the fact that a Texas city is seriously considering a ban on fracking is a sure sign that the Barnett Shale has entered the backlash phase.

A decade of drilling has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy, created thousands of jobs, and revolutionized an industry. But it has also left a lot of people feeling sucker-punched. 

In Tarrant County, where community leaders once welcomed the urban drilling boom as economic salvation, big names have now gone to court accusing Chesapeake of cheating them out of millions of dollars. Lawsuits have been filed by the cities and school districts of Fort Worth and Arlington, as well as a group led by billionaire developer Ed Bass—alleging that the Oklahoma City-based producer improperly deducted expenses from royalty payments and used sales to affiliates to pay out less. (In court papers, Chesapeake has defended its practices.)

A website called royaltyripoff.com, set up by the McDonald Law Firm, is rounding up smaller property owners for similar lawsuits. Meanwhile in Azle, residents are still in the dark about whether a series of earthquakes late last year was caused by pressure from wastewater injection wells. Many rode buses to share their concerns with the Texas Railroad Commission in Austin, which hired a state seismologist to study the matter, then let the disposal wells keep operating. 

Drillers have always had their share of critics in North Texas, but there’s little debating that the volume has been turned up. As fracking moved from the Barnett to other shale fields across the country, controversy erupted from New York to Pennsylvania to Colorado. The result has been a coordinated nationwide campaign against drilling and hydraulic fracturing, says Ed Ireland, who runs the industry-sponsored Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. “There is so much misinformation,” he says. 

Ireland doesn’t detect widespread backlash in North Texas, saying there have been almost 20,000 wells drilled “with very few problems.” The showdown in Denton, he says, is the fault of city leaders who granted permits for drilling and now want to change the rules.  

But Jim Bradbury, an environmental attorney in Fort Worth who was part of a city task force that forged a comprehensive drilling ordinance, believes the industry has itself to blame for the discord. Oil and gas companies, he says, never want to admit that their drilling might be causing problems, whether the issue is groundwater contamination or seismic activity. What he calls a “smash-mouth” approach to complaints has only invited organized opposition to develop.

In the Barnett, the tone was set several years ago by Chesapeake and its former leader, Aubrey McClendon, who launched a propaganda campaign that included the Tommy Lee Jones ads and self-serving “documentaries” to sway the community. “I think they’re doing themselves and have done themselves a disservice,” Bradbury says, adding that the industry’s PR-driven strategy can be summed up as: “Stand back. This is a perfected process and should be only lightly regulated.”

Bradbury is no anti-drilling zealot. He considers hydraulic fracturing “amazing technology” and says the industry’s record has actually been very good. But he advocates a balanced approach on issues such as setbacks and noise abatement that serves both producers and property owners to keep production flowing. 

“I would have thought that as time went on, from shale to shale to shale, you would have seen this more progressive evolution in terms of the relationship between those that are impacted by the process and those that are carrying the process out. But in a lot of ways, it has gone the wrong direction,” he says. “It’s really a devolution, rather than a revolution.”

A fracking ban in Denton? Now that’s smash-mouth.  

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