July 31, 2011

By Brandolon Barnett  

Discussing the depiction of drilling in the documentary Gasland, the objectives of Dallas's gas drilling task force, and the potential impact on policies in North Texas and beyond.

Gas drilling is a huge topic right now. Its ascendance as an issue of public debate is driven by a host of reasons ranging from the intensely political to the economic. For ardent supporters of the potential of natural gas drilling (and the process of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – which makes it possible even in urban and suburban settings) drilling holds the potential for freeing America of its dependence on foreign energy supplies, providing cleaner alternatives to oil, and restoring America’s place as one of the world’s leading energy producers. These are among a host of positives. In this scenario “peak” fossil fuel and a possible end to the fossil fuel era are pushed back decades if not indefinitely as massive new deposits of natural gas, buried deep inside the earth, are discovered and come online through advanced drilling processes like fracking.

Yet as the natural gas industry embarks on a gold rush that began in earnest with Fort Worth/Tarrant County’s Barnett Shale (no relation to this writer) others are sounding a warning bell. Perhaps exemplified by Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, this group argues that there are potentially negative and serious consequences for local environments and public health in areas exposed to gas drilling and the hydraulic fracturing process. It is a position haunted by images of pulluted water supplies; dirty brown water loaded with unnamed carcinogenic chemicals – pollutants that seeped into supplies during fracturing – and residents of towns throughout the West and Midwest lighting their water on fire as it pours from the tap. Into this controversial landscape steps the Dallas gas drilling task force, assigned the unenviable task of recommending modifications to the city’s gas drilling ordinance in the event that drilling is approved. As part of a Green Source conversation I spoke with Cherelle Blazer, a Yale educated chemist, director of the environmental non-profit “You Can’t Live in the Woods”, and appointed member of Dallas’s gas drilling task force.

How did you first hear about the Gas Drilling task force and what were your first thoughts? 

A group of citizens began pushing the city when we got wind of the fact that the city was leasing mineral rights to XTO Trinity (a prominent energy company) for around 35 million dollars. We then began researching with the city about status of city regulations and eventually pushed to not grant any SUP's or permits for drilling until the existing gas-drilling ordinance could be revamped.

Many readers and members of the public are encountering this issue for the first time through the documentary Gasland. Do you feel that this is a good description of the process and its potential dangers?

I know Josh Fox personally and yes, I think Gasland is a pretty good description of the process. I don't know how much the industry knew given that the process was primarily confined to much less populated areas. Regardless they are now trying to fix it but doing so while maintaining the status quo to some extent. In some counties around the state people are able to light their water on fire. I know now that the industry is scrambling to fix problems even if they can't fully acknowledge those problems for a variety of reasons.

If you could sum up for us, what's the primary objective of the task force and how do you intend to go about achieving it?

The commission is charged with hashing through science and ordinances from other cities and looking at the experiences of those cities residents. We’re doing all of it to gain insights into how to strengthen the Dallas ordinance. Part of this is an exploration of how safe the process can be and trying to make it as safe as possible.

Do the controversy and discussion have consequences beyond North Texas? 

It does. We’re hoping that Dallas will set the bar very high and become a model for other cities around the country. We have all of these examples. When Ft. Worth started with the Barnett Shale it was an unknown process. Now we have a wealth of knowledge to pull from and I'm hoping Dallas will be the gold standard for environment, public health, and city growth - leading to comprehensive thought on how to do gas drilling in a sustainable way. Everyone is watching to see what's going to happen. We've had contact from people in cities across the state and elsewhere so we know people are watching.

Can you tell me about your efforts with your non-profit "You Can't Live in the Woods"? What inspired the name and what are the top priorities at the moment?

The original name derived from the concept of "don't poop where you eat"! But you can't really name an organization this. It’s envisioned as a non-profit that looks at sustainability on the local level. Actually even smaller on the neighborhood level. This is important because what's needed at White Rock is different from Fair Park area which is different from South OakCliff.

Our biggest priority is the intersection between the built environment and our health. Right now we’re starting in South Dallas by looking at the resources available, the built environment, and the health effects. We’re then creating a sustainability plan for the area looking at numerous different factors recognizing that sustainably is everything integrated from neighborhood services to the local environment.

Finally, how can readers and listeners interested in the process make their voices heard and/or stay abreast of what's going on?

The minutes from each of our meetings are public. Everything that we do and say is posted on our website. On Aug. 2nd there's an evening meeting at City Hall for public feedback. The meetings are also open. These are the places for public comment and though people might not get a lot out of each meeting I definitely recommend attending.

Cherelle Blazer is founder of the non-profit group You Can't Live in the Woods. Brandolon Barnett is Assistant Editor & Interactive Communications Manager for Green Source DFW. You can send questions, comments, or story ideas to - [email protected]