As fracking ramps up in the Barnett shale, Arlington city leaders avoid scrutiny

As fracking ramps up in the Barnett shale, Arlington city leaders avoid scrutiny
As fracking ramps up in the Barnett shale, Arlington city leaders avoid scrutiny

When she saw the rig go up again, Kim Feil started to close windows.

She didn’t want a repeat of 2013, when she experienced a nosebleed after natural gas drilling began at the site just a quarter-mile from her home in Arlington, Texas, in the Barnett Shale. A 2019 study found that people who live between 500 and 2,000 feet of fracking sites have an increased risk of nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness or other short-term health effects.

For five years after fracking ramped up in the late 2000s, Feil blogged almost every day and regularly attended council meetings. She warned neighbors about potential health effects, including studies that found a higher risk of asthma attacks, from chemicals used during the drilling process. By 2014, as natural gas prices fell, fracking activity began to decline.

Recently, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and gas prices skyrocketing, the economic equation changed again. Profits from natural gas drilling rose to new heights. The Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees the oil and gas industry, reported the most active gas well permits in seven years.

This story was produced in partnership with Floodlight News, a non-profit environmental news collaborative.

This past summer, as the price of oil and gas hit historic highs, the city of Arlington quietly approved nearly a dozen permits for new gas wells near residents’ homes without holding any public hearings, leaving Feil and other community members without an opportunity to comment or object to the activity.

That’s a change from previous activity, when companies including Total Energies and XTO began fracking in the Barnett Shale, a geological formation containing trillions of cubic feet of fossil fuel. The shale lies beneath the densely populated Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, home to more than 7 million people. Drilling brought heavy industry and noise, air and water pollution to Arlington, an otherwise typical suburban city of 400,000 located between Fort Worth and Dallas.

So far, despite the recent permitting activity, only one drilling site is active now – the Truman drilling site a half mile from AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. In November, Error watched when crews for French energy giant Total’s subsidiary, known as TEP Barnett or TEEP Barnett, returned to build a new rig near her home. She has already reported the rotten egg smell to a city inspector.

“I’m just at the mercy of which way the wind blows,” Feil said.

New gas wells approved behind closed doors

City staff say public hearings for new wells are unnecessary because most of the new permits are in existing drilling zones approved by former city council members.

As long as the companies drill within one of the approved zones, their permit request can be greenlit internally by city staff without a council vote or public hearing. Seventeen of Arlington’s 51 permitted gas drilling sites have an approved drilling zone, according to city data. A majority of the drilling zones were approved in 2013 or earlier.

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Arlington calls the process “administrative approval.” Under that protocol, a natural gas company’s only obligation is to notify property owners who live within 1,320 feet that drilling will soon begin, said Susan Schrock, a city spokeswoman. The city declined to make officials available for a phone interview.

According to records reviewed by Floodlight news and Fort Worth Report, historically, the city did not often use the administrative approval process. Over the past 10 years, Arlington has used the process 81 times, or an average of eight per year. In contrast, in 2022, the city approved 17 wells administratively.

Of TEP Barnett’s current 31 drilling sites in Arlington, five are in established drilling zones, according to city data.

Over the past three years, TEP Barnett applied for 62 new gas wells in Arlington, per data from the Railroad Commission of Texas – 87% of which were in locations with established drilling zones and eligible for administrative approval.

Leslie Garvis, a spokesperson for TEP Barnett and Total Energies, said the company has not built any new drilling sites in Arlington since it bought existing facilities from Chesapeake Energy in 2016. Drilling new wells at existing sites allows the company to further develop the area’s natural gas resources without increasing TEP Barnett’s footprint, she said.

While TEP Barnett has not expanded its physical footprint, the company has increased the number of applications for new wells. In 2022, TEP Barnett applied for 25 more new gas well permits in Tarrant County than it did the year before, according to data from the Railroad Commission.

Since drilling in Barnett began, many residents have supported the expansion of natural gas drilling as an economic opportunity. Property owners sign leases with gas companies that allow them to collect royalties from gas revenues. In Arlington, the drilling boom enabled the city to donate $100 million in royalties to a foundation that funded neighborhood, nature and other charitable projects.

But without public hearings, Ranjana Bhandari said there is no opportunity for residents to ask questions of the city or Total about potential drilling activity and associated pollution. Bhandari serves as executive director of the environmental group Liveable Arlington, which has become one of the most vocal opponents of fracking in the city and helped get dozens of residents to show up at council meetings about drilling sites.

“The way I see this move by the city is a move to remove public hearings as part of the permit,” Bhandari said. “There’s no substitute for the public forum — it’s an asserted claim. Look at what they’re doing. They’re sticking something so insanely polluting and intrusive in your backyard.”

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Katheryn Rogers has volunteered with Liveable Arlington, an environmental advocacy group, since 2017. The oil and gas industry are “thugs,” she says. “It keeps me going because I don’t like bullies.” (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Limited visibility, limited impact

The renewed focus on administrative approval has limited Liveable Arlington’s ability to lead visible opposition campaigns to fracking, which previously stalled efforts to expand drilling.

Many permitted drilling sites are concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods, often with a higher concentration of renters and people who do not speak English as a primary language. Homeowners are entitled to receive notice of new drilling activity while many tenants remain in the dark, Bhandari said. These residents do not have the time or access to follow what is happening, she added.

Liveable Arlington’s success has come from turning out crowds at public hearings to pressure local officials to deny new drilling permits. In January 2022, Arlington City Council members denied a permit for three new wells next to a daycare after Liveable Arlington and the daycare owner filed a lawsuit against the city. Two years earlier, Arlington made national headlines for voting down gas drilling near a community of color, as leaders counted on the city’s record on racial equality.

Katheryn Rogers, a volunteer who tracks natural gas permits for Liveable Arlington, said the hearings serve as a chance to educate residents and prove there is community opposition to new drilling.

“We’re getting wins,” Rogers said. “If we have a full chamber and we’re up there saying, ‘OK, scientists say this about drilling,’ then that teaches them what’s going to happen in their backyard. The council also needs to be held accountable for what they vote for.”

In the absence of public hearings, Liveable Arlington volunteers try to fill the gaps through door-to-door canvassing, an email newsletter and an online permit tracker.

“All the diseases, the property damage, the quality of life issues they’ve faced,” Bhandari said. “All of this is being sent to a public hearing. And that’s what they’re trying to suppress.”

During a November 2021 Arlington City Council meeting, residents expressed opposition to TEP Barnett’s request to drill three new gas wells near a daycare center and home. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

‘Unusual’ obstacles to obtaining public records

As the city moves more toward a more relaxed administrative approval process for the permits, it also appears to be limiting or delaying access to public records. These days, requests for permits that used to be granted in a matter of days have taken weeks, if not months, to be filled. It’s a marked shift from the relationship Bhandari used to have with city officials, many of whom know her from more than a decade of activism.

“What I’ve seen is the city becoming more combative and trying to avoid handing over information if they’re able to,” said Jayla Wilkerson, an attorney representing Liveable Arlington. “But it’s not unusual for a government entity to work harder to hide information when they see how that information is being used — which is unfortunate because that’s the purpose of the Public Information Act.”

Molly Shortall, an attorney for the city of Arlington, did not respond to specific questions about the city’s gas drilling policy. Arlington has always complied with the Texas Public Information Act and requested rulings from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office when it believed the records contained information not open to the public, Shortall said.

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Information not subject to public disclosure includes personnel records, ongoing litigation, trade secrets and property agreements. The city’s priority is to release open information to the public efficiently and quickly, Shortall said. Large amounts of data related to gas wells in Arlington are currently posted online and freely viewable on the city’s website, she added.

In one case, city attorneys referred Liveable Arlington’s drilling zone map request to the attorney general’s office for a decision. The city tried to argue that the information was proprietary — an argument that would not have held up in court, Wilkerson said.

Homes, apartment complexes and businesses line the street next to an active natural gas drilling site in Arlington, Texas. New gas wells at the site were not subject to a public hearing or council vote under a city policy that allows TEP Barnett to drill in established zones. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

TEP Barnett had 10 business days to provide evidence to explain why the information was proprietary. When the company did not respond, the attorney general’s office ruled that Arlington’s claim was not valid. However, the attorney general suggested that the city could instead withhold the information on the grounds that it contained information about “critical infrastructure.” Releasing the map, the office said, could pose a terrorist threat.

Arlington followed the attorney general’s advice and refused to release the information to Liveable Arlington, setting a possible precedent for future requests. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“This struck me as unusual in many ways,” Wilkerson said. “The city did not take the initiative [the security threat] part of the requirement. It was the state government that said, “Hey, you have another option here as a way to hide information.”

Bhandari fears this pattern is already in motion – and may be here to stay.

“There has been a terrible shift in how [government] treats its own citizens,” Bhandari said. “And I want to know why. Why can’t they honestly tell us why they’re doing what they’re doing?”

Amal Ahmed is the Texas-based environmental reporter for Floodlight News. You can reach her at [email protected].

Haley Samsel is an environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at [email protected].

In the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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