What Happens When Fracking Hits the Suburbs
Photo Credit: Pincasso/ Shutterstock.com
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The corner of Goldenrod and Western streets, with its grid of modest homes, could be almost any suburb that went up in a hurry – except of course for the giant screeching oil rig tearing up the earth and making the pavement shudder underfoot.
Fracking, the technology that opened up America's vast deposits of unconventional oil and gas, has moved beyond remote locations and landed at the front door, with oil operations now planned or under way in suburbs, mid-sized towns and large metropolitan areas.
Some cities have moved to limit fracking or ban it outright – even in the heart of oil and gas country. Tulsa, Oklahoma, which once billed itself as the oil capital of the world, banned fracking inside city limits. The authorities in Dallas last week blocked what would have been the first natural gas well in town. The town of Longmont, just outside Denver, meanwhile, is fighting off attempts by industry groups to overturn a fracking ban.
But Gardendale, a suburb of 1,500 people near the hub of the west Texas oil industry, exists in a legal and political environment in which there are seemingly few restrictions on fracking, even inside city limits. For residents here, fracking is part of daily life.
"You can hear it, you can smell it, and you are always breathing it. It's just like being behind a car exhaust," said Debbie Leverett, during a tour of the area last October organised by the Society of Environmental Journalists. "All of your senses change."
Over the last few years oil companies have drilled 51 wells in Gardendale, an area that covers about 11 square miles – and that's just the start.
Berry Petroleum, the main oil developer, plans to drill as many as 300 wells in Gardendale. "Berry's current plan is to drill approximately 140 wells on 40-acre spacing in and around the Gardendale area," Jeff Coyle, a company spokesman, wrote in an email. "Additionally, we are preparing to conduct a pilot study on 20-acre spacing and, if those test results are encouraging and economic conditions warrant, we may drill up to 160 additional wells."
Some of those wells will be drilled within 150ft of residents' front doors – far closer than in other towns in Texas.
In the nearby city of Midland, the oil industry hub and childhood home of George W Bush, the city council capped the number of wells inside city limits at 30. The town requires oil companies to stay 500ft away from buildings and homes. In some circumstances oil companies may be required to landscape around a well.
"People are still not really happy when an oil well turns up in the backyard," said Wes Perry, Midland's mayor and an oil man himself. But he added: "We are an oil town. We can't be hypocrites."
However, Gardendale lacks the legal authority to keep fracking at a distance. The suburb, just outside Midland and Odessa, is unincorporated, so it does not have the legal authority to impose zoning restrictions. Residents voted down an attempt to incorporate last year, fearing it would lead to higher taxes.
Berry argues the close proximity serves to encourage industry and residents to co-exist. "What we have here is a situation where we have to find the best way to work together, where mineral rights owners and surface rights owners can co-exist," Coyle said.
But co-existence does not work for Shane Leverett, Debbie's husband. Leverett has worked in the oil industry, but he said the drilling plan for Gardendale was excessive. "This is a fantastic opportunity for oil and gas development, but it is coming at the expense of all of us," he said.
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."