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What Happens When Fracking Hits the Suburbs

Residents of Gardendale, a suburb near the hub of the west Texas oil industry, face having up to 300 wells in their backyards.

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The couple are suing the oil company to try to block drilling on their 130 acres on the edge of town. The land is staked with bright plastic strips marking potential oil wells.

Current plans call for seven wells on the property. "They're talking about a well every 600 feet and a pad every 300 feet," Shane Leverett said. "Do the math. There's not much room left over for us."

The suit seeks to challenge a pillar of Texas law: that property owners have no control over the extraction of the oil that lies beneath their land, unless they also own mineral rights. The Leveretts only own the surface rights to their land. The mineral rights were sold off decades ago – a fact the Leveretts were aware of when they bought their property, but they did not think there was a real prospect of drilling at the time.

Fracking changed that, however, making it profitable to drill on the Leveretts' land.

"This case is of historic importance," said Steve Hershberger, the Leveretts' lawyer. "Now that the oil companies have found oil and gas through fracking and horizontal drilling they are going into residential areas and urban areas. This case is going to define the relationship between mineral owners and surface owners in a big way."

The oil company argues the Leveretts got what they paid for. "Essentially, each Gardendale surface owner bought his or her surface property (at a discounted price without the minerals) betting, wrongfully as it turned out, on the proposition that oil and gas development would not occur in the area," Coyle said.

Other residents complain the oil company dictates what property owners can do above ground, even without definitive drilling plans.

Hector Rodriguez said he was barred from expanding his trailer home or putting in a bigger dog house on his six acres because the oil company insisted on protecting access.

"They told me they might not ever drill there, but they put the stake there just in case," he said. "They told me I could not do anything there. I have no rights."

Coyle said the company believes the Rodriguez property sits atop a potential oil well – although it is not currently scheduled for drilling.

Rodriguez, back at home, is unimpressed. "We're just talking about a dog house," he said. "I should be able to decide about that."

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