Drilling for Gas in Dallas-Fort Worth

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is in the middle of a gas-drilling boom. The new activity is the equivalent of adding a $3 billion company to the metroplex. Dan Piller, a reporter for the Fort-Worth Star Telegram, fills Scott Simon in on the details.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's a fever in Fort Worth, Texas, and it's spreading - 8,000 feet underground. Residents of the city have recently found themselves in the midst of a gas rush. This is not a joke about burritos. The entire city of Fort Worth sits over a gas dense layer of black rock called the Barnett Shale that only recently became possible to access.

Now hundreds of Fort Worthians are setting up drilling rigs in backyards, near churches, city buildings and even schools. Dan Piller is the oil and gas reporter for the Fort Worth Star and Telegram. He joins us from Dallas. Mr. Piller, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAN PILLER (Forth Worth Star and Telegram): Well, thank you. I enjoy it.

SIMON: Now, oil and gas wells have been drilled in other metropolitan areas. I think Los Angeles is most noteworthy as an example. Is the drilling in Fort Worth different?

Mr. PILLER: Well, not really. Of course, there's new technology that's used. Los Angeles drilling was back in the 1920s, and that was mostly oil. There was also drilling in Oklahoma City, and in East Texas. Tyler and Kilgore are quite famous. In fact, they still have antique rigs sitting up there in those towns.

But this is for natural gas. It's also horizontal drilling. They can go down several thousand feet and then go laterally with the well bore. So you can access more obscure areas. So it's a newer technology thing.

SIMON: Does it change the cityscape?

Mr. PILLER: Not really. Although you do notice it at night because the drilling rigs, the derricks, are lit up and you can drive in. Especially from the south, you drive around and you see these towers that kind of light the way into the city at times.

At any given time, there's probably 25-30 derricks working in Tarrant County, which is Fort Worth.

SIMON: Of course, the gas has been there for thousands of years, we assume...

Mr. PILLER: Three hundred and fifty million years.

SIMON: I stand corrected. Millions of years.

Mr. PILLER: Yeah. This gas is pre-Jurassic.

SIMON: Why does the drilling start now then?

Mr. PILLER: Only in recent years did they figure out how to get the gas out of the shale, which is a less permeable rock. And the main way they do it is through what they call hydraulic fracturing, which after they drill the well bore, they perforate it.

And then they send down a very high-speed injection of water into the well casing, and of course that flows into the rock and it puts little - tiny little hairline cracks in the rock, opens it up. And you're just talking about 8,000 feet down.

And then that allows the gas to flow out of the rock into the well bore.

SIMON: Are people literally digging in their backyards, or hiring professionals to drill in their backyards?

Mr. PILLER: People themselves don't dig. What they do is they sign a lease, and then a company comes along eventually and sets up a well and a derrick, and then they drill the well themselves. But it's professional companies that do that, not individuals.

SIMON: How is this changing Fort Worth?

Mr. PILLER: The oil and gas industry after several years of being pretty much subdued in the '80s and '90s when we went through the bust is back. It's pretty prominent now. I'm sure membership's up in the petroleum club. There's a lot of new jobs, a lot of office leasing going on.

You certainly notice it mostly in the small towns around Fort Worth. Places like Clevern(ph) and Weatherford and Bridgeport, towns like that on the edge of Fort Worth.

SIMON: A real economic difference?

Mr. PILLER: It's probably on the order of two or three billion dollars a year in terms of royalties, salaries, things like that. It's the equivalent of another Fortune 500 company moving to Fort Worth.

SIMON: Mr. Piller, you know, there are some I guess homeownership contracts that are written so that a family, for example, would own a house and surrounding yard and land on which their house sits. But something like 50 feet below the surface, they cease to be the owner and somebody else can buy those rights. Does that come up here?

Mr. PILLER: Well, it has. Mostly in the rural areas. Now, in the urban areas, we're discovering that most of the surface owners also own the mineral rights. In fact, there's a neighborhood right close to downtown Fort Worth - Greenway Place - is a low-income African-American neighborhood. It was one of the first that was integrated after World War II, where African-Americans could own their own homes.

They bought these very small houses, and they got the mineral rights. And now they're getting some lease money from it.

SIMON: Are there environmental questions being raised?

Mr. PILLER: Well, usually there are. You have several of them. Now, there's not so much anything from the emissions. It's usually in the wastewater that comes up. Of course, when you drill down there, water comes up, water, sludge and what they call fittings, which are the little pieces of rock and things that come up.

These have to be put in these big sludge bits. That's the main concern. But then after the well is dug - which takes about three weeks - then they go back and reclaim all the land. And so all you're left with is the little casing head, and usually a water collection tank at the top.

Environmental questions have not been raised, at least in a major way, but time will tell about that.

SIMON: Dan Piller, reporter for the Fort Worth Star and Telegram. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. PILLER: Thank you.

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