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People or Profit-- The Urban Gas Wars

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by Jerry J. Lobdill, 26 July 2008
(Originally published by We! Magazine, 23 July 2008) We are experiencing a new phenomenon in Texas, a collision of gas drilling and production interests with the needs of urban dwellers. Texas laws were not written for this new situation, and for various reasons the Texas Railroad Commission, the state legislature, and city governments have not dealt with the issues. Indeed, the attitude seems to be that Texas has been an oil and gas state for about a hundred years, and we have all the laws and protections needed already in place. This is not so.

Gas drilling and production in an urban setting, the way it is being done in Fort Worth, is wrong and dangerous. Until very recently we were producing oil from wells in sparsely populated areas. The product, oil, was transported by truck to market. Except for very small towns there was never a case of dense well drilling in an urban area. The laws and regulations we have today were written with this earlier era in mind.

Now we are faced with gas drilling in the Barnett Shale formation, 6% of which underlies Fort Worth, a city with a population of more than 700,000 in a 300 square mile area, or about 2,333 people per square mile. The urban land use is very dense compared to historical locations of resources in the state. The product today is gas, not oil, and each well site must have a gathering pipeline to transport the product away. This wet gas has no odor or taste and is invisible, highly flammable, and explosive.

The density of wells planned for the city of Fort Worth by the industry is about 7 wells per square mile placed on drilling pads at about 6 to 8 wells per drilling pad. Without making allowance for detours made necessary by existing surface land use, this would require a minimum of about 1.15 miles of gathering pipeline per drilling pad. This is a gross underestimate of the pipeline needed, because the pipelines will necessarily follow streets.

Now, instead of oil wells spaced out on ranches with trucks hauling away oil, we will have closely spaced gas wells in a densely populated area with 16 inch diameter steel pipelines carrying raw, wet, corrosive, odorless gas that cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, at a pressure of 150 pounds per square inch or more under peoples yards less than 50 feet away from their bedrooms. A tire with 65 psi that blows out can tear off a person's hand. Pipeline pressures in Fort Worth's gas gathering lines are 150 to 200 psi. The danger of this plan is unacceptable. To get an idea of the magnitude of the risk please see the damage from the New London School explosion.

This disaster happened in New London, Texas in 1937 and was caused by odorless raw, wet gas piped from local gas wells into the building for heating. Three hundred children and teachers were killed. That gas would have been at a low pressure of about 4 ounces per sq. in. and the massive damage to the school can readily be seen in the pictures. The gas is corrosive to steel pipe and has been known to eat clear through a pipeline in less than four years.
The gas gathering pipeline coming through the backyards of Fort Worth would not be a small service line of about 4-6 inches in diameter with raw wet gas at a pressure of 4 ounces, as was responsible for the massive damage at New London. It would be a line from 16-24 inches in diameter with corrosive odorless [unodorized] raw gas at a pressure of 150 to 200 pounds per square inch! That's pounds per square inch, not ounces per square inches as we were looking at in New London. The pressure in the Fort Worth pipelines would be more than 600 times the gas pressure that caused the New London disaster.

The proposed Fort Worth pipelines, which will be in residential areas, are a ticking time bomb whose chemistry has not changed since 1937 when 300 children and teachers were blown away. Raw gas has no odor. An odor is added to make it possible to detect gas leaks before dangerous levels are reached. Without that odorant, highly explosive levels can accumulate undetected in the front yards of homes of Fort Worth.

The damage done in two other incidents make the danger increasingly clear. In 2005 in Palo Pinto County a gas well explosion created a crater the size of a football field and a flash that was seen 100 miles away. In 2006 in Forest Hill, a gas explosion resulted in a fire that required 500 homes to be evacuated.

The possible results of a pipeline accident were not fully presented to the city council, to the homeowners or mineral rights owners by the industry when this boom began around 2001. Pipelines were not mentioned at all. Today the City Council is being inundated with citizen complaints of heavy-handed industry agents threatening eminent domain lawsuits if they delay granting pipeline right of way easements. Some have received certified letters from pipeline attorneys threatening a lawsuit within a few days of the first visit by the pipeline agent

Statistically, it has been projected that if the gas drillers have their way here in Fort Worth, there will be such a concentration of wells and pipelines inside the city that there will be a significant incident inside the city every 7 months, on average, for the duration of the production phase which is estimated to be about 30 years. This conclusion results from a basic statistical analysis of significant incident data published by the Texas Railroad Commission on their official web site.

Further information about pipeline breaches is available in these two excellent references:

The safety ramifications of the intended build-out are enormous, yet Texas laws and regulations are silent on this issue, because they are based on the former development model of oil wells in rural settings, instead of gas wells in densely populated urban areas.

The Texas Railroad Commission has been apprised of this safety issue, but stands mute and complacent. The state legislature has done little or nothing to call into question oil and gas industry assertions regarding safety. The city governments claim to be unable to provide any help, and the industry has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising since the first of this year in an attempt to garner public support, while at the same time ignoring or minimizing safety concerns and never mentioning eminent domain.

The system is broken, and no one will lift a hand to bring sanity to the situation here. Homeowners properties are vulnerable to seizure without due process or equal protection of the law. What is worse is that local and state politicians have no interest whatever in the basic right of citizens to be secure and safe in their homes, to be protected from theft of their property, and to be protected from danger of injury or death due to risk of gas leaks, fires, and explosions. However, all of the governmental entities are protected from liability for dereliction of any duty to provide for the safety of the people. The companies who are profiting from the gas drilling are protected from liability. They cannot be sued for the damages from any explosions or leaks that occur. The local and state governments are protected from liability and cannot be sued for damages from these pipelines. The citizens whose lives and property are being put at risk have been left in danger and without recourse.

We are facing massive damage to our people and our city if something is not done. In New London, Texas 300 children and teachers died from raw wet gas at 4 ounces of pressure in a small service pipe. What do you think that same corrosive unodorized gas in a 16 inch pipe at 600 times the pressure would do when the pipe corrodes? Today in Fort Worth, the City feigns surprise at the newly revealed intent to use eminent domain for pipelines, yet the City Attorney advises that nothing can be done for the citizens. The state legislature and the Texas Railroad Commission have been ignoring complaints about this predatory law for years. There is no realistic hope for justice at either the local or state level.

Under these circumstances we have no alternative but to ask for federal intervention to restore sanity, to ensure due process and equal protection of the law, and to provide the opportunity to obtain a valid independent safety engineering analysis that can assure safety for the residents. We are told that the gas produced here will mostly be sold in interstate commerce. Therefore, we are asking Mary E. Peters, the US Secretary of Transportation, to intervene in this matter.

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I am a retired physicist and hold a B.S. in Ch. E. as well. I have been an environmental activist since the early 1970s. I was a founding member of the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin, TX. In 2006 I was a member of a select (more...)

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