Dallas postpones drilling permit decision during contentious meeting

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on February 7, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 2 at 1:25 AM

DALLAS -- On Thursday, the Dallas City Plan Commission again took up the controversial issue of drilling permits that gas producer Trinity East has applied for on private and city park land in northwest Dallas. 

But after a contentious public hearing in which protesters were escorted out by officers, commissioners delayed the hearing until March 21.

The city granted the lease in 2008 for $19 million and quickly plugged the cash into the city budget. Trinity East's CEO Tom Blanton told commissioners it is time for the city to let his company develop the lease it bought.

He expressed frustration by comments that the permit process has been rushed, "I'll tell you one thing five years hasn't felt like its been rushed to me."

But the three drilling sites and processing plant Trinity East wants off Luna Road and Northwest Highway have become mired in controversy and delays. 

The city council continues to study an overall drilling policy because the hydraulic fracturing drilling method is criticized by environmentalists for polluting air and using huge amounts of water.

Trinity East, wanting to capitalize on its investment, decided to press ahead and seek a special use permit to start drilling. Officials say it would be over a small setback area and would follow all environmental regulations.

But several environmental groups say the drilling and processing would pollute the air at the site that is near city soccer fields and golf course.

Some opponents yelled at commissioners when they felt their side didn't get enough time to speak although Chairman Joe Alcantar extended the speaking time to 30 minutes, double the assigned 15 minutes.

Officers escorted out two protesters who refused to sit down and be quiet.

Gary Stuard, Chairman of Downwinders at Risk that opposes the drilling, expressed his anger at what he characterized as a secret city hall deal with Trinity East.

"They were going behind our backs making, cutting a deal," Stuard said of a 2008 letter City Manager Mary Suhm signed with Trinity East.

In the letter, requested by City Council member Scott Griggs from the City Secretary and first reported by the Dallas Observer, Suhm told Trinity East the staff would assist in obtaining the permits but she made "no guarantees" in the non binding agreement.

City council policy was that there would be no drilling on park land while there's been no public knowledge of the existance of the letter.

Responding after the CPC meeting Thursday, Suhm said in a statement that charges of any "back room deal" are inflammatory and inaccurate.  She wrote, "The letter simply states that staff would follow normal procedure in bringing a policy issue forward to the City Council regardless of staff's recommendations for the Council to consider."

Regardless, it just cast more suspicion on city hall's policy on gas drilling among opponents on the issue that gets louder as it gets longer.

In the end, commissioners extended the hearing for further study whether to rethink the permits that it first denied in December but then decided to reconsider.

Email bwatson@wfaa.com


Complete response from Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm

To characterize the sequence of events related to the gas drilling lease agreements as a "back room deal" is inflammatory and inaccurate. The letter is NOT a deal between staff and Trinity East Energy, LLC. In fact, the City Manager could not make such a "deal" - that is not the City Manager's authority. The letter simply states that staff would follow normal procedure in bringing a policy issue forward to the City Council regardless of staff's recommendations for the Council to consider. The letter further states that Trinity understands that the letter is not a binding agreement, but is merely a good faith representation of discussions.  As you are aware, nothing regarding gas drilling would or could be approved without Council action.  Below is a factual sequence of events.

Council discussions on gas drilling began as early as 2006.  On February 6, 2008, City Council was briefed on the policy details regarding gas drilling and production leases. While the briefing recommended no drilling on parkland, it included explaining what steps would be required to consider drilling activity on parkland. To allow a non-park use on park land, City Council would have to authorize and hold a public hearing.

 On February 27, 2008, the City Council approved addendum item No. 16, a resolution stating that the City Manager is authorized to execute two 36-month lease agreements, with one 36-month renewal option each, as well as initial options to lease for City of Dallas north/Trinity River properties with Trinity East Energy, LLC. 

Thereafter, City staff worked through gas drilling lease agreement negotiations with Trinity East Energy, LLC. When the leases were signed, staff agreed -- in a letter dated August 15, 2008 - to simply follow the normal process, if requested to do so, of presenting policy issues before the Dallas City Council.

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