A Well Pad Next to Every 3-Car Garage: Suburban Sprawl Collides with Texas Frack Jobs

Since the dawn of the modern shale gas movement, natural gas producers and home builders in the city of Denton, Texas, have been on a collision course. The two powerful business interests understood suburban sprawl would eventually limit where gas companies could drill wells in the North Texas community.

Owing to Denton’s ample open and undeveloped space, the inevitable conflict was put on hold. Home builders and shale gas producers operated in harmony in the early years of the city’s boom times. Setback rules were a nonissue because operators could drill their new gas wells and developers could build their large new homes without stepping on each other’s toes.

The geology located underneath Denton, a rapidly growing city that sits atop the northeastern edge of the Barnett Shale, attracted some of the biggest names in the shale gas business: Devon Energy and Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy. Smaller players such as Eagleridge Operating, Trinity River Energy and Vantage Energy also targeted the producing basin.

About five years into the shale gas rush, though, Denton residents started raising concerns that foreshadowed the growing tension between the home building and natural gas industries. The residents blamed nearby shale gas drilling for health problems and disruptions to their quality of life.

Today, the amount of available land continues to shrink inside Denton city limits, and gas producers are getting worried developers will build out homes before operators can begin drilling wells, said Adam Briggle, president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, a group founded in 2011 to protect the city from oil and gas drilling. “If you’re talking about 1,000-foot setbacks, there won’t be any scraps of land big enough for them to go and stick new gas wells,” Briggle said in an interview.

Most of the early oil and gas drilling in Denton — the energy patch city that famously passed a ban on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, last November — was in relatively sparsely populated areas with only a handful of landowners, many of whom also owned the mineral rights. But complaints from residents began to grow louder partly due to previously abandoned wells getting re-drilled under legacy permits.

Shale gas drilling, compared to conventional oil and gas drilling, is hard to miss, even for native Texans who grew up around oil and gas drilling activity. Denton had hosted conventional drilling for decades. But extracting gas from unconventional plays like the Barnett Shale is a major industrial process that requires large amounts of equipment and facilities.

“The actual activity of drilling and fracking is extremely visible and noticeable,” said Briggle, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas in Denton. “There’s no way you can miss it. When the well has been in production, though, it can be deceptively innocuous. You may not even notice it if you’re buying a home, even just 500 feet away. Of course, it’s off-gassing certain toxic emissions, but they are invisible. There’s this chronic emission source at an industrial site nearby, but you may not notice it until it is re-fracked or they drill another well on the site and then it becomes very noticeable, but by then it’s too late.”

On June 1, Briggle and two other Denton residents were arrested for committing civil disobedience in an attempt to prevent Vantage Energy workers from accessing the company’s newest well pad inside the city. Two weeks earlier, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot had signed into law House Bill 40, legislation that pre-empts regulation of oil and gas activity at the city level, thereby nullifying Denton’s new anti-fracking ordinance. Vantage Energy was the first company to renew drilling activities in the wake of state lawmakers overriding the ordinance.

Denton residents had spent years trying to devise rules that might make shale gas drilling compatible with their community. But the gas industry resisted efforts to tighten regulations. “Denton was living with fracking and arguably was fine living with it going forward if we were able to enforce some reasonable rules,” Briggle said.

Having failed to tighten the rules, Denton residents succeeded in getting an anti-fracking ordinance placed on the ballot. The ordinance easily passed in November 2014, not because Denton is a liberal college town, but because it is “full of people who care about having safe neighborhoods,” Briggle said. “You could have taken out every single college-aged voter in Denton and the ban would have still passed handily. Seven out of 10 straight-ticket Republican voters voted for the ban. It’s is very much not a partisan issue,” he added.

Angry lawmakers in Austin immediately set out to overturn the ordinance. “In a naked display of corruption, the industry bought a new law,” Briggle said in a statement released on the day of his arrest. “An apoplectic orgy of irrationality in Austin spawned H.B. 40, which does nothing to address the underlying policy issues that actually drove the Denton ban. Vested rights, the split estate, disclosure laws, lack of state monitoring, the distribution of wealth … none of these issues were even broached.”

Land developers and natural gas producers have thrived in the city and surrounding Denton County over the past decade. Denton County ranked 23rd in the U.S. for percentage population growth in 2014 as it added 24,211 more people in 2014 from 2013, a 3.3% increase to 753,363. With a surging population, Denton County, located in the northern suburbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, is one of the nation’s top counties for new home construction.

Denton County also boasts impressive natural gas production numbers. Texas officials identify Denton County as one of four main core counties in the Barnett Shale, with the other three being Johnson, Tarrant and Wise. Heavily drilled since the mid-2000s, gas production from Denton County ranked eighth among all counties in the state of Texas and fourth among all Barnett-area counties.

The county’s natural gas production climbed from 138 Bcf in 2004 to a high of 256 Bcf in 2011. In 2014, gas production remained strong in the county, totaling about 230 Bcf, according to Texas Railroad Commission data.

Denton still has tremendous growth potential for land developers. Only slightly more than half of the city is developed. But one of the unintended consequences of the city’s recently approved 1,000-foot setback for drilling and production in residential areas, according to Briggle, could be a rush to drill gas wells in these undeveloped areas before builders have a chance to put in homes.

The suburbanization of Denton is creating myriad adverse environmental impacts that, calculated as a whole, are greater than the environmental harm caused by shale gas development. Subdivisions contribute to the need for greater amounts of fossil fuels, including large volumes of natural gas.

In suburban communities, land is cheap, which encourages spread-out day-to-day activity. Households use more resources to commute and to perform daily tasks and consume more housing than they would if they lived in cities. Lower-density suburbs feature less public transit infrastructure and thus, unlike city residents, suburbanites must use private cars to travel.

In early August, following the repeal of its short-lived ban on hydraulic fracturing, the Denton City Council voted 5-1 to change its regulations for gas drilling activity, establishing setbacks for drilling and production in residential areas of 1,000 feet and a minimum reverse setback — where developers intend to drill near existing wells — of 250 feet. The city already had gas well ordinances in place, but officials believed the old regulations needed to be changed to accommodate the Texas Legislature’s passage of H.B. 40.

Many residents had urged the city council to adopt strict setback and transparency rules. The city leaders instead chose to adopt more modest rules, fearing an embrace of wider buffer zones between drilling sites and homes would once again raise the ire of the oil and gas industry and its supporters in the state legislature.

The city of Denton is home to almost 300 natural gas wells. “Denton is reportedly one of the most heavily-fracked towns in Texas, and residents have complained about poor air, disruptive noise in residential areas, and an increase in low magnitude earthquakes,” Greenberg Traurig LLP, a law firm, said in a January 2015 report [ http://www.gtlaw.com/portalresource/rosendahltfracking ] on urban drilling in Texas.

Some Denton residents are questioning why the reverse setbacks are lower than the production site setbacks. “If it is too dangerous to allow fracking within 1000 feet (or 1500 feet) of a residence, then it should also be too dangerous to allow a residence to be built within 1000/1500 feet of a frack well, right?,” the North Texas chapter of environmental group Rising Tide, based in Denton, wrote on its website. “It seems council is worried of harming property owners who would not be able to develop their land unless reverse setbacks are set really low.”

Denton was forced to come to terms with the power of the oil and gas industry in the wake of the passage of H.B. 40. With Denton residents now consigned to debates over setbacks as opposed to the overall practice of drilling within city limits, Briggle sees no good solutions to be had at this point. “Somebody’s interests are going to be severely curtailed,” he said, referring to the competing goals of land developers, gas drillers and homeowners.

In the city, some land developers own only the surface rights while others own both the surface and mineral rights. And then there are the developers of master planned communities, many of which own both the surface and mineral rights. The city’s ordinance largely does not apply to these developers due to different zoning classifications.

“They are governed by their own … ‘master plans,’ which slot in gas wells wherever the developer would like to put them,” Briggle wrote in a blog post. “The best way to maximize mineral and surface property values is to drill lots of wells and build lots of homes. That means, of course, homes close to wells. Another good assurance is to make sure the folks who buy those homes don’t know too much about the gas wells. I don’t see why we would expect them to plan for safe setback distances and robust disclosure policies.”

One of Denton’s biggest master planned communities is Cole Ranch, a 3,070-acre community in the southwestern part of the city. Along with its array of high-end homes, Cole Ranch’s developers have designated 600 acres as green space and plan to build two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. The Cole Ranch community’s owner, Dallas-based Stratford Land, also is seeking to acquire land in other high-growth areas of the U.S., including Arizona, Southern California and parts of the Southeast.

Devon Energy operates the 14 gas wells on what remains of the Cole family ranch, according to a Denton Record-Chronicle news report.

“There is ongoing mineral production in Cole Ranch and Stratford Land is working with both the city of Denton and the mineral operator, Devon, to make sure that any future development on Cole Ranch is well coordinated in a very sensitive and thoughtful way,” Stratford Land spokeswoman Cynthia Pharr Lee said in an email. “Stratford Land considers Devon a strategic partner in the overall development effort in Cole Ranch and we are very pleased with the great lengths Devon is going to in order to coordinate with us on future development plans.”

Elsewhere in Denton, the coordination between home builders and gas producers is less pronounced. With reverse setbacks of only 250 feet, builders could run into problems selling homes, especially if prospective buyers are aware of nearby gas drilling. “The one thing the landowners are hoping is that people will know that and choose to take the risk,” Briggle said.

Mark Hand is a reporter who primarily covers environmental and energy issues. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.