Originally published on April 23, 2011 (original posting)
By KATE GALBRAITH
FORT WORTH — Texans pride themselves on being the heart of the nation’s oil and gas business. But even here, public concern about natural gas drilling is growing.
On Wednesday, several dozen protesters marched through downtown Fort Worth, waving signs and chanting anti-drilling slogans that reflected concern over air and water pollution.
The anxiety centers on a recently expanded drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is now used in more than half of new gas wells drilled in Texas. This practice — which involves blasting water, sand and chemicals far underground to break up rock and extract gas — is common in the Barnett Shale, a major shale-gas field around Fort Worth.
“It’s our health that’s at stake,” said Dana Schultes, who lives in south Fort Worth and worries about the impact of the drilling on her young daughter.
The protest, organized by the group Rising Tide North Texas, is the latest sign of a backlash against drilling in Texas. Yard signs saying “Get the Frack Out of Here” and “Protect Our Kids/No Drilling” have appeared in some yards in Southlake, a Dallas suburb. A few communities have declared a temporary moratorium on drilling permits, and Dallas set up a task force last week to examine drilling regulations within its city limits.
Analysts say the discontent appears to be partly inspired by highly publicized concerns in Pennsylvania, a state unaccustomed to drilling and where fracking has recently increased. The federal government is also raising concerns: the Environmental Protection Agency is beginning a study about the method’s effect on groundwater, and a report for Congressional Democrats released last week detailed the quantity of chemicals that gas companies are putting into the ground.
Lease payments by gas companies have also dropped significantly in Texas since natural gas prices hit highs in 2008, said Mike Slattery, the director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Texas Christian University — even as gas production rises in the state.
Gas companies say fracking is safe, but some acknowledge that changes are needed.
“For the most part, I would view these as self-inflicted wounds,” said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, a drilling company, speaking about the industry generally.
Gas companies, Mr. Pitzarella said, have existed under the radar for a long time but now need to be more responsive to public concerns.
The Fort Worth protesters ended up at Range Resources’ offices. The company was singled out, an organizer said, partly because it is one of the drillers with headquarters in the city.
Range Resources is also the subject of a battle between the E.P.A. and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operations in the state. In December the E.P.A. accused the company of contaminating two water wells in Parker County, west of Fort Worth. The driller denied the accusations, and the Railroad Commission investigated and cleared it. But the E.P.A. case is continuing.
City governments are getting more involved, too. Fort Worth, which has just under 2,000 gas wells within its city limits, expects to complete a study this summer of drilling’s impact on air quality. Dallas, on the edge of the Barnett Shale, has no wells so far, but gas companies are keen to drill — hence the establishment of the task force, which may deliver recommendations to the City Council this fall.
Gas drillers are also facing extra scrutiny in Austin, where lawmakers are considering whether to reduce a tax break for “high cost” natural gas drilling, like hydraulic fracturing. The break cuts the amount of severance tax paid by many gas companies.