Urban Gas Drilling Causes Backlash In Boomtown

Correction Sept. 3, 2008

The story says that Chesapeake Energy is "the biggest player in the Barnett Shale." In fact, Devon Energy is bigger.

The Barnett Shale, a natural gas-bearing formation underneath 21 counties in north Texas, is a wildcatter's dream: Wherever energy companies poke a hole, there's gas. Now they're scrambling to drill anywhere there's vacant land — at country clubs, parking lots, city parks, school grounds and airports.

But a vocal and growing minority is not getting behind the Barnett Shale, even though Texas-born actor Tommy Lee Jones urges them to on recent billboards and in newspaper and television ads. Jones is a corporate spokesman for Chesapeake Energy, the nation's largest independent producer of natural gas.

Jerry Lobdell, a neighborhood activist in Fort Worth, said he feels the energy companies played bait and switch now that pipeline companies are coming into neighborhoods with the power of eminent domain and plans to run odorless gas lines under front yards. The companies insist the gas lines are perfectly safe.

"They came in, they spoke of bonus money and royalties," he said. "They never said anything about pipelines whatsoever or any of the other bad things that we've learned about."

'Citizens Of The Shale'

Fort Worth is the focus of the largest urban gas-drilling boom in the country. But some people are asking for a moratorium on drilling until its full impact is understood and there are stronger laws to protect the public.

"In the past, drilling was not taking place in the heart of the city," said glass artist Don Young, who is leading the charge to halt drilling. "Now we're having all the problems associated with gas-drilling compressor stations, pipelines, drill pads. They're taking away our green space. They're bringing in pollution. They're bringing in truck traffic — affecting our neighborhoods in a very negative way."

In response to talk like this, Chesapeake Energy mounted a media campaign almost as aggressive as its drilling program to highlight the company's safety and community-friendly agenda.

An infomercial called "Citizens of the Shale" has been airing on local television for months. It calls the drilling a "small inconvenience for a big gain" and says trees can grow back.

"There's hundreds of thousands of dollars coming into here. There's jobs being created," the infomercial continues.

Shale TV

Chesapeake Energy's CEO, Aubrey McClendon, is a big believer in aggressive media campaigns. He was a major backer of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that attacked Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's military record when he ran for president in 2004, and other right-wing causes.

The comany's stock market value tops $28 billion, and last year McClendon's compensation and stock options totaled nearly $19 million.

In the wake of Chesapeake's infomercial comes Shale TV, a daily talk show about the Barnett Shale set to air this fall. The company has hired three award-winning Dallas broadcast journalists to produce the show.

Julie Wilson, Chesapeake vice president for corporate development, says she understands there's skepticism about the objectivity of Shale TV, but she insists it's no different than the rest of corporate media.

"Well, I think we pay those journalists — whether on Channel 8 or Channel 11 or the Star-Telegram — in terms of advertising support," Wilson says. "We see this as pretty much instead of running the ads on the program, we're just writing the check direct."

Boomtown Prosperity

At a recent neighborhood meeting, contractor Dan Roberts, who said he's in favor of drilling, said he won't tune in to Shale TV for straight talk on the gas boom.

"With all the lipstick you put on it, it's still a pig," Roberts said. "It is still a media campaign for the company to get people to sign their leases."

What no one disputes is that the shale has been gushing dollars. Every piece of property a drill bit snakes under — even though it's a mile underground — gets a signing bonus and a royalty check.

The City of Fort Worth, which has received more than $40 million, created a committee just to figure out how to spend it all. Energy companies are shoveling goodwill money into museums and other nonprofits. A study commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce puts the total economic benefit at more than $8 billion and nearly 84,000 jobs.

Fort Worth has new buildings going up, new pickups driving off lots and big spenders bellying up to the bar.

"I've seen peoples' tastes are changing," said Marty Travis, general manager of Billy Bob's Texas, which bills itself as the world's largest honky-tonk. "People are drinking a higher-quality product, whether they're going from a Seagram's to a Grey Goose vodka. Maybe they're celebrating their big paychecks working out on the Barnett field."

A High-Pressure Neighbor

But boomtown prosperity may not pacify residents' anxiety over living next to a gas well.

In April 2006, a gas well explosion in southern Tarrant County killed a well service contractor. Five hundred people in the City of Forest Hill were evacuated. An OSHA investigation determined the contractors at the XTO Energy well did not follow safe work practices.

On a recent night, Chesapeake representatives met in a Unitarian church with residents of the Ryan Place neighborhood to explain their proposed drilling activities in the area.

Chesapeake Operations Manager Dave Leopold said he believes what happened at Forest Hill got "blown out of proportion."

"The evacuation was unwarranted," he said. "And I think if you spoke to the fire chief today, he'd say we probably evacuated unnecessarily."

But when asked the next day, Pat Ekiss, Forest Hill's fire chief, did not say the evacuation was unnecessary.

"Absolutely not," he said. "You know, so much of this is unknown. And yet it is commonplace in West Texas — taking rural mentality and bringing it into a municipal area. And those two often don't mix."

Balancing Act

The same advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that made the Barnett such a productive natural gas field are causing excitement in other shale formations: the Haynesville in Louisiana, the Marcellus in Pennsylvania, the Fayetteville in Arkansas and the Woodford in Oklahoma.

In each of those places, people will have to decide how to balance their royalty checks and their quality of life.

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