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Gas drilling discussion quiets down at Dallas City Hall

Excerpt

The following story ran in the Nov. 22, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News. Law professor John Lowe provided expertise for this story.

November 30, 2012

By Randy Lee Loftis

The Dallas City Council is considering an ordinance regulating gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This series examines the claims made by proponents and critics of drilling.

For a while, one of the fastest ways to start a fight at Dallas City Hall was to mention natural gas drilling.

A City Council-appointed task force spent more than a year on it. Those for and against tougher rules formed alliances.

The council debated the task force’s findings for hours in May without agreement. Three months later, it heard again from each side. Again, no consensus emerged.

That latest public session was Aug. 1. Since then, drilling has stepped out of the spotlight.

In nearly four months, the council hasn’t uttered a word in the open about hydraulic fracturing, setbacks, protected uses, drilling in parks or floodplains, or any of the other points of dispute.

Instead, it’s gone behind closed doors with the city’s attorneys at least three times on “legal issues regarding gas drilling and production,” according to agendas.

City Attorney Tom Perkins didn’t respond to requests to explain those issues.

Given the city’s dual roles — drilling regulator and potential financial beneficiary from royalties — gas companies, advocates and outside experts said it’s not hard to discern the questions:

Which rules should govern pending plans for drilling — those existing when requests were filed or new ones adopted before the city approves the plans?

Could the council pass a new ordinance to control future drilling while letting existing plans go forward?

Might the council do nothing — that is, pass no new ordinance — and count on the currently dismal state of natural gas economics to dampen any industry desire to drill?

Or could it simply return the $34 million that two companies paid in 2008 for gas rights on city land — denying them potential profits and the city its royalty income?

Dallas, it appears, faces a puzzle box of decisions, each guaranteed to leave someone unhappy.

Changes, regrets

John S. Lowe, a recognized expert on oil and gas law at Southern Methodist University, said authorities from small towns to the federal government have felt the lure of easy money from petroleum rights, only to change their minds when problems arose.

“These things do happen, and they often regret it afterward,” said Lowe, a professor of energy law and senior associate dean of SMU’s law school. “The money is too darn good to turn down.”...