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Oil, gas drilling debate erupts in Texas suburbs

Homeowners in Fort Worth weigh noise and vibration against monthly royalty checks.

June 08, 2007|From the Associated Press

FORT WORTH — With Fort Worth sitting on one of the nation's largest natural gas fields, 150-foot drilling rigs are rising over golf courses, churchyards, even tree-lined neighborhoods.

"If you don't have a gas well ... get one!" a billboard urges commuters zipping along a busy interstate near downtown.

But not everyone is celebrating the natural gas bonanza here, despite the 55,000 new jobs and extra $5.2 billion annually it is bringing to the North Texas economy.

Once confined to the lonely prairies, oil and gas exploration has gone urban. In Fort Worth, Los Angeles and other densely populated places, that sometimes pits neighbor against neighbor, forcing them to choose between preserving a tranquil neighborhood or cashing the royalty checks a well provides.

Some Fort Worth residents complain that large property owners are the only ones getting a windfall from the gas companies drilling under their land.

In some cases, entire neighborhoods are organizing to keep the wells out. They are worried about the drilling and extraction noise -- which can sound like a jet engine -- heavy truck traffic, decreased property values and explosions. An XTO Energy Inc. worker was killed last year in a gas well explosion in nearby Forest Hill.

"Believe me, if people weren't getting money, nobody would want this," said Don Young, who founded Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance.

With demand for natural gas soaring, the city has 500 active gas wells and permits for 225 more, including 70 now being drilled.

Drilling takes about a month of round-the-clock work, first vertically and then horizontally into a rock formation called the Barnett Shale thousands of feet below. Then comes a week or so of "fracking" -- the hydraulic fracturing process that breaks through the dense black rock.

Drilling-related squabbles also have erupted elsewhere. In Los Angeles, residents living near a 1,200-acre oil drilling site have complained of noise, vibrations and unpleasant odors. County officials recently halted new drilling for a year at the site pending further study.

Fort Worth initially allowed gas wells within 300 feet of homes but recently extended the boundary to as much as 1,000 feet -- depending on the permit type -- after getting noise complaints. The city also set noise limits and established fines of as much as $2,000 a day for violations.

Mayor Mike Moncrief said the ordinance aimed to protect residents' safety and quality of life during a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity.

"While we are reaping the benefits ... we continue to deal with challenges and have to work to tweak this ordinance to fit this industry, which is going to be with us for a long time," Moncrief said.

Because of the city ordinance, some rigs are close to homes but are not actually going up in anyone's yards. They are on highway medians, airport grounds and other public or private property. The towering rig is up only during drilling; after that, the only thing that remains is a 6-foot-tall well with horizontal valves, cordoned off by a fence.

Once the process is explained to homeowners, they figure, "It won't affect me and I'll make some money. Why wouldn't I do it?" said Larry Dale, president of Fort Worth-based Dale Resources, which has secured about 35,000 leases for Chesapeake Energy Corp.

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