APPOINTING MEMBERS TO THE AIR QUALITY STUDY COMMITTEE AND
IDENTIFYING THE CHARGE OF THE COMMITTEE
Dear Mr. Mayor and Members of Council,
Last month, the City of Ft. Worth announced that an independent firm would be engaged to conduct further testing near gas drilling sites. It was stated that a “comfort zone for people who live in this community” was needed together with “the basis on which to make sound policy”.
City staff then contacted various activist groups to inform them that a firm had been selected by the City. As it turned out, that same firm had been chosen and hired by industry. The City merely adopted the industry testing plan with a few modifications. In addition, the firm selected by the City had intimate ties to Chesapeake Energy, the largest gas driller within the city limits.
When opposition was met by the City from various concerned citizen groups, City staff appeared to change direction and announced it would engage a committee to ensure fair representation by the citizens. The results of this planning were announced Friday.
It was with profound disappointment that I read the memorandum for resolution. While there is citizen representation, on closer inspection it becomes patently obvious that most chosen are ill equipped and ill informed on gas drilling, environmental or air quality issues. In short, they are neophytes, with little to no background whatsoever in these important issues, a fact readily admitted by City staff. These individuals will be asked to tackle enormous learning curves while voting on issues that they are simply not qualified to decide upon or debate. It begs the question: what is the point?
Further, juxtaposed against these citizens and given full voting rights are industry professionals who are self styled “environmental health and safety” executives within the gas drilling companies. Had these same professionals been carrying out their jobs responsibly from the beginning then we would not be in this position now with substantial air quality issues and the need for this committee. In fact, Mr. Satterfield of Chesapeake Energy, has continued to publicly deny any problem within the Barnett Shale region to date, in spite of evidence gathered by the State of Texas, including evidence gathered at Chesapeake facilities. To offer these same individuals voting rights with regard to testing protocols and parameters is alarming. To allow them to vote against citizens who have no background or expertise in drilling or air quality issues is a travesty and hardly ”the basis on which to make sound policy.”
In future, two actions must happen. Firstly, stringent deterrents must be put in place. The City should utilize its powers of authority under the Texas Health and Safety Code within its jurisdiction to ensure that operators comply with their permits and the ordinance. Essentially the City has the same authority as TCEQ. Such monitoring should be done by random inspections requiring the operators to provide all pertinent paperwork. Certainly EPA and TCEQ can advise on this. City staff’s contention that this cannot be done is simply wrong and I have provided the relevant sections of the code to them. It has been utilized in other areas of the Sate specifically for oil and gas issues. A resolution should be passed by the Council which adopts the resolution of enforcement powers under the code. This would give the City substantial leverage within its jurisdiction to enforce compliance by the operators. It would also show leadership to the people.
Secondly, on-going monitoring of the facilities must be carried out for the life of any facility without exception within the City’s jurisdiction. Long-term testing contracts could be entered into with reputable local universities which have in-house capabilities. Again this monitoring should be random and without prior knowledge of the operators and should be overseen by both the TCEQ and the EPA. Substantial fines should be imposed on violations with the caveat that “three strikes, your out”. Technologies are currently available which can mitigate emissions by over 90%. There is no excuse for them not to be used. As such, operators may be allowed three violations over a pre-determined period of time with accelerating compliance measures being imposed. For instance, a per diem fine on the first violation with no new permits issued until compliance is met, moving on to a substantially increasing per diem fine and no new permits for a period of time and then, if a third violation occurs, a suspension of all permits issued to date but not drilled until the operator can prove compliance and future compliance. This should mitigate any reckless disregard by an operator for the terms of the ordinance. There need not be a “one fix for all situations.” The operators themselves are best qualified to determine what is needed to meet compliance at each individual facitlity. But compliant, they must be. Substantial deterrents such as not being able to obtain future permits or to drill under existing permits would give the City a proper amount of leverage to ensure such compliance.
Drilling must be done responsibly. It is astonishing that we must have such a drawn out debate when technologies are available that allow extraction of minerals but with the added safety features which protect us and our environment from such industrial activities. Indeed, as stated before, had these Environmental Health and Safety executives been using their own proven technologies which they tout so heavily in their annual reports and press statements, we would not be in this position today.
Given the prior attempt to pass off an industry study as the City’s own and now the proposal of such obviously unqualified citizen committee members to vote head to head with highly sophisticated executives of large drilling companies will be met with skepticism, indeed cynicism by many. It need not have been this way.
I had sincerely hoped that more substance would come of the recent discussions, that meaningful expressions on which to truly base sound policy would have been the goal. It is most unfortunate that, once again, it appears this will not be the case.
About Sharon Wilson
Sharon Wilson is considered a leading citizen expert on the impacts of shale oil and gas extraction. She is the go-to person whether it’s top EPA officials from D.C., national and international news networks, or residents facing the shock of eminent domain and the devastating environmental effects of natural gas development in their backyards.
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Message to O&G industry: this is 2010 which means you're dealing with a whole new world, so to speak, in terms of the level of sophistication in the people, communications, and various technologies.
I agree, and with the media watching the oil and gas industry, people will be informed and will understand what they read and hear on television. Let's be careful not to discount citizens with a learning curve.