Urban Gas Drilling Causes Backlash In Boomtown Fort Worth, Texas, has become the focus of the largest urban gas-drilling boom in the U.S. But residents are starting to demand answers from energy companies on problems related to noise, pollution and pipeline safety. Chesapeake Energy has responded with an unprecedented media campaign to burnish its image and calm the critics.
NPR logo

Urban Gas Drilling Causes Backlash In Boomtown

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93300400/93313751" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Urban Gas Drilling Causes Backlash In Boomtown

Urban Gas Drilling Causes Backlash In Boomtown

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93300400/93313751" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. If you go to Fort Worth, Texas, you'll probably notice a certain movie star on billboards, buses, in the newspaper, and you may see him talking on TV about natural gas.

(Soundbite of television advertisement)

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (Actor): The Barnett Shale is one of the largest natural gas fields in the United States. It's nearly 40 trillion cubic feet of reserves right here in North Texas.

BLOCK: Yup, that's Texas-born actor Tommy Lee Jones. He's become a spokesman for Chesapeake Energy, the nation's largest independent producer of natural gas, and Chesapeake is the biggest player in the Barnett Shale. This formation lies under 21 North Texas counties, including Fort Worth. After three years of a natural gas boom there, some residents are losing their enthusiasm. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Chesapeake Energy is not "the biggest player in the Barnett Shale." Devon Energy is bigger.]

NPR's John Burnett picks up our story.

(Soundbite of television advertisement)

Mr. JONES: So for the good of your family, for the good of the people, let's get behind the Barnett Shale.

BURNETT: The Barnett Shale is a wildcatter's dream. Wherever they poke a hole, they find gas. Energy companies are scrambling to drill anywhere there's vacant land, in country clubs, parking lots, city parks, school grounds and airports.

But a vocal and growing minority is not getting behind the Barnett Shale, as Tommy Lee urges, especially now that the pipeline companies are coming into neighborhoods with the power of eminent domain, with plans to run unodorized gas lines under front yards. The companies say it's perfectly safe.

Neighborhood activist Jerry Lobdell says he feels baited and switched.

Mr. JERRY LOBDELL (Neighborhood Activist): They came in, they spoke of bonus money and royalties. They never said anything about pipelines whatsoever, or any of the other bad things that we have learned about. Now, we're beginning to see what happens next.

BURNETT: Some are asking for a moratorium on urban drilling until its full impact is understood and there are stronger laws to protect the public.

Don Young, a glass artist by trade, is leading the charge. He drove me around, and we talked about the consequences of the Barnett boom.

Historically, oil and gas helped build this city, Fort Worth, which is your home town. So why are you so opposed to a new gas boom here?

Mr. DON YOUNG (Activist): Well, in the past, drilling was not taking place in the heart of the city. 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.

BURNETT: Talk like this prompted Chesapeake Energy to mount a media campaign almost as aggressive as its drilling program to highlight the company's safety and community-friendly agenda. An infomercial titled "Citizens of the Shale" has been airing on local television for months.

(Soundbite of television advertisement)

Unidentified Woman #1: The trees can grow back. You can plant more grass. It's a small inconvenience for a big gain.

Unidentified Woman #2: Temporary inconveniences, most residents admit, they can live with.

Unidentified Man: I've seen the good that it's doing. There's hundreds of thousands of dollars coming into here. There's jobs being created

BURNETT: Chesapeake Energy CEO, Aubrey McClendon, is a big believer in aggressive media campaigns. He was a major backer of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and other right-wing causes. The stock market value of his company tops $28 billion, and last year his compensation and stock options totaled nearly 19 million.

In the wake of "Citizens of the Shale," now comes Shale TV. The company has hired three award-winning Dallas broadcast journalists to produce a daily talk show on the Barnett to premiere this fall.

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

Ms. JULIE WILSON (Vice President, Chesapeake Energy): Well, I think we pay those journalists, whether they're on Channel 8 or Channel 11 or the Star-Telegram or others, in terms of advertising support. We see this as pretty much instead of running the ads on the program, we're just writing the check direct.

BURNETT: Will people tune in to Shale TV for straight talk on the natural gas boom? At a recent neighborhood meeting, a contractor named Dan Roberts, who says he's pro-drilling, was dubious.

Mr. DAN ROBERTS (Contractor): With all the lipstick you put on it, it's still a pig. It is still a media campaign for big companies to get people to sign their leases.

BURNETT: What no one disputes is that the Barnett 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.

A study commissioned by the Fort Worth 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.

Marty Travis is general manager of Billy Bob's Texas, which bills itself the world's largest honky-tonk.

Mr. MARTY TRAVIS (Manger, Billy Bob's Texas): I've seen people's tastes change. 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 that they've gotten from working out on the Barnett field.

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

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Woman #3: ...emergency crews are on the scene at a gas well explosion in southern Tarrant County, and Forest Hill is being evacuated. And CBS 11's Eileen Gonzales joins us now.

BURNETT: In April, 2006, this blowout at a well southeast of town owned by XTO Energy killed a well service contractor. An OSHA investigation determined the contractors did not follow safe work practices on the high-pressure well head.

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. A resident wanted to know...

Unidentified Woman #4: And so what kind of evacuation plan do you anticipate we should be looking to for that possibility?

BURNETT: Chesapeake operations manager Dave Leopold took her question.

Mr. DAVE LEOPOLD (Operations Manager, Chesapeake Energy): What happened at Forest Hill literally got blown out of proportion, and the evacuation was unwarranted, and I think if you spoke to the fire chief today, he would say we probably evacuated unnecessarily.

BURNETT: The next day, I tracked down Forest Hill's fire chief, Pat Ekiss.

So do you feel like you overreacted in terms of evacuating people?

Mr. PAT EKISS (Fire Chief, Forest Hill): Absolutely not. I think the total evacuation was about 516 residents in the city of Forest Hill. You know, so much of this is unknown, and yet it is commonplace in West Texas. But we're taking a very rural mentality and bringing it into a municipal area, and those two don't often mix.

BURNETT: Which takes us back to the question we started with: How does the oil and gas industry, which the public is telling to boost its domestic reserves, exploit a formation in the middle of a crowded metropolis?

The question has implications far beyond Fort Worth. The same advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that made the Barnett play possible 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 these places, people will have to decide how to balance their royalty checks and their quality of life.

John Burnett, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.