The first two bills aimed at natural gas operations in North Texas' Barnett Shale passed in the Senate on Tuesday.
The bills, now headed to the House, are among a spate of legislation introduced this session to regulate various aspects of the industry, which channeled about $11 billion into the local economy last year, according to a recent report.
Activity in the massive underground gas field known as the Barnett Shale has slowed significantly because of the recession. But the hope among many is that lawmakers will put new rules in place this session ahead of any recovery.
"Now is the time for this to take place," said Fort Worth resident Greg Hughes, who opposes drilling in urban areas. "If we wait until the industry fully recovers, it will be too late."
With a record number of bills introduced this session - and a majority expected to die - some North Texas lawmakers said legislation affecting the Barnett Shale region is a high priority. The Barnett Shale spans 18 counties, including Tarrant, Denton and parts of Dallas.
One of the bills clearing the Senate would allow pipelines in Texas Department of Transportation rights-of-way. That means they could bypass some residential neighborhoods and possibly reduce the number of eminent-domain cases.
"It is important that this industry grows in a way that is respectful to the neighborhoods and quality of life that Tarrant County families enjoy," Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said in a prepared statement.
The bill, sponsored by Davis, also has the endorsement of industry officials.
"We definitely have an interest in allowing pipelines in the public rights of way instead of people's yards," said Pat Nugent, executive director of the Texas Pipeline Association.
The other bill that passed, also introduced by Davis, would restrict the placement of injection wells that dispose of drilling wastewater from certain geological formations.
Conflicts between the needs of industry and the rights of property owners increased as mineral rights leasing and gas well drilling hit a feverish level last summer. The price of natural gas peaked at more than $13 per thousand cubic feet. The price has steadily tumbled since then and is currently less than $4 per thousand cubic feet.
Craig Adair, an aide for state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said any legislation with the support of industry has the best chance of passing.
"Our economy is driven by oil and gas," said Burnam, who introduced six bills this session aimed at placing tighter restrictions on drilling, particularly in urban areas. "And that has given an advantage to mineral rights owners over surface property owners. We've got find some way to level the playing field and protect homeowners' rights."
State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, said he believes bills dealing with safety and eminent domain also have a good chance of passing.
He leads a group of House members, industry officials and local government leaders from North Texas working on natural gas drilling issues.
"Our goal is strike the right balance between the rights of property owners and not adversely [affect] this industry that is so beneficial to our economy," Parker said.
Industry officials said they are optimistic that some helpful legislation will emerge.
"Obviously, it's not a perfect world," said Ben Sebree, vice president for governmental affairs and general counsel for the Texas Oil & Gas Association. "But [we're] trying to work with lawmakers and go through the process to make this a fair and positive experience for everyone, especially residents of the Barnett Shale."
Marice Richter is a Grapevine freelance writer. She can be reached at mhrichter@verizon .net.