You’re going to get your gas rig in your backyard, and you’re going to like it!

A quick plug for an amazing five-part series currently running in the Denton Record-Chronicle about the problems drilling on the Barnett Shale is having.  Rig explosions, flooding, mudslides, neighborhood clashes, legal battles, vandalism– it’s like “There Will Be Blood” except happening today… and in Denton.  Somebody get T. Boone Pickens on the phone– isn’t he in this movie?

The really scary thing?  The Railroad Commission, which is supposed to regulate oil and gas drilling in the state, has two of its three members running for Senate in 2010 in a crowded field.   Competing for campaign donations, will either of them dare cross the gas companies?  Do we expect them to side with consumers and homeowners, or will they side with the corporate interests?  So far, at least, it doesn’t seem like anyone from the EPA to the Railroad Commission is looking after the health and environmental effects urban drilling is causing.

Quick Links here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Part 1: Eminent Dominance Expansion of natural gas industry into Barnett Shale leaves Argyle families little recourse

Jennifer Cole stepped across the parched ground of a North Texas autumn, past her dirt-caked backyard swimming pool, inching closer to a roaring machine. She watched it force its way through the earth, pushing dirt from side to side in waves like an ocean’s tide. Day by day, the bulldozer was remaking the lot behind her home on Britt Drive near Argyle, changing a sloped meadow dotted with oak trees and cattle into a flat and lifeless expanse. She shivered when she thought about what would fill the void.

Since the dirt-moving process began, dust clouds became so thick that her boys couldn’t make sense of them. “Mom, look! A sandstorm,” one said. Her sons didn’t understand why she wouldn’t let them use the pool or play outside after school. She looked down at the pool where a layer of grime clung to the bottom like black frosting, then back to the rolling bulldozer on the other side of the barbed-wire fence.

Cole didn’t know that what was happening behind that fence would consume the next three years of her life. She did know what the bulldozer meant, though. A gas rig was coming. It was Dec. 4, 2005 — a Sunday.

“Sunday,” she said above the roar, “is no day of rest.”

Part 2: Perils Afoot Gas boom brings potential dangers closer to homes

Natural gas bubbled from the frostbitten ground around the well for several hours before the earth erupted about 1:45 a.m. on a December morning in 2005, tossing truck-sized boulders into the air. John Ritchie’s land erupted in a grassfire so large that a neighbor thought the sun was coming up over the scrub and cedar trees. A worker sitting in a vehicle nearby watched in horror as flames engulfed him.

Part 3: Culture Clash Texas in tug-of-war between valuable resources underground and the people who live above

Since construction on the pad site started in late 2005, landowners Steve and Vanessa White had experienced their own frustrations. Steve White told a dirt mover to preserve an ancient oak tree; the man bulldozed it before his eyes, he recalled. The pad site was only supposed to cover 3 acres; workers used 4… It was sloppy, inexcusable, Vanessa White said. But a deal was a deal. “The day you sign your name to that lease is the day you don’t really have any control either,” she said.

At the same time, the Whites believed their neighbors were harassing them. More than once they said they found trash dumped into their yard. Early on, someone apparently cut through the barbed-wire fence on the north end of their land and hauled off dirt in a wheelbarrow. One neighbor kept whacking golf balls into their yard, even after Steve White asked him to stop. Others threw things at their horses, they said.

The Whites believed they hadn’t done anything wrong and sometimes resented the neighbors’ meddling. Neighbors recalled some of the alleged occurrences but doubted the Whites were the targets of concerted harassment.

Any chance to settle the feud vanished on Sept. 26, 2006, when the Britt Drive neighbors went before the Denton City Council to urge the city not to ease pressure on the newly repentant Reichmann. Waiting in their seats to address the council, some of the neighbors blithely suggested suing the Whites, who were seated nearby and overheard the remark. The neighbors later claimed they didn’t know the Whites were there, but the damage was lasting. After the meeting, several neighbors offered to sit down, to talk things out, but the Whites refused. Everyone was too agitated, they thought.

Just before Christmas, Denton city leaders discovered Reichmann had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, throwing the lawsuit into limbo. They’d have to wait until an automatic stay was removed before pressing on, the city attorney said.

Hearing the news, Jennifer Cole worried the bankruptcy would keep the neighbors from resolving their flooding concerns. “I just hope that … they are ultimately held responsible,” she said.

The following spring, the neighborhood’s fears were realized. On April 24, 2007, the heavens opened and relentless rain turned Briar Creek into a churning, rushing torrent, cutting off the neighborhood from Hickory Hill Road for hours. Uphill, the dirt-and-rock plateau for Whitespot helped push the runoff helter-skelter over Britt Drive.

When Renae Lorentz finally got home that night, after the water receded, her Suburban was gone.

Runoff washed the vehicle off her driveway and left it nose down in the creek bed, a jagged tree branch lodged through the windshield where a passenger’s head would be.

Part 4: Voicing the Silence No one seems to be looking into the health and safety concerns created by the presence of the drilling rigs.

For a while, Kim Couch thought her children hadn’t noticed the effect of the natural gas drilling in their neighborhood along Britt Drive.

“You think they are just in their own little world, running around and carefree,” Couch said.

Her view changed when television news cameras descended on their Argyle-area neighborhood after the first well was drilled three years ago. Couch realized that she was the one running from home to car, busy with her life and unaware of the profound changes that had come to their neighborhood. Her 10-year-old daughter, Kristen, surprised her when she answered a question about what had changed the most.

“It’s like it scared all the birds away,” Kristen said. “I can’t hear the birds sing anymore.”


A new Southern Methodist University study found gas drilling and production in the Barnett Shale to be a significant source of air pollution, much greater than generated at area airports and by motor vehicles.

By 2009, residents can expect 620 tons of smog-forming compounds each day from the Barnett Shale, including 33 tons per day of toxic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde and 33,000 equivalent tons of greenhouse gases — all produced in order to mine and process clean-burning natural gas.

Part 5: Neighborhood Metamorphosis How the neighborhood has been affected as residents line up into pro and anti drilling camps

Jennifer Cole stared at the letter in her hands. No matter how many times she read it, it didn’t make sense, she recalled. The letter, which appeared in her mailbox just after Thanksgiving 2007, said that a Houston company planned to conduct seismic testing so it could drill on the land behind her Argyle-area home.

Cole recalled feeling baffled. The company that was supposed to drill there, Reichmann Petroleum, was tied up in bankruptcy. Even if Reichmann had emerged from its financial hole, the city of Denton still had a pending lawsuit against the company — a lawsuit that demanded compliance with city codes before workers could move as much as an anthill. Prodded by Cole and her neighbors on Britt Drive, the city sued the would-be driller in 2006 for building a planned well site behind Cole’s home without approved plans, among other alleged violations.

But Reichmann never held the leases for that well. A Denton County lawyer, Tom McMurray, held them during Reichmann’s involvement with the site, which kept the well out of the court proceedings. McMurray pooled the leases and, on June 4, 2007, sold them to Carrizo Oil and Gas Inc., a Houston-based energy company with a multimillion-dollar budget and wells scattered throughout the Barnett Shale region.

Reading the letter, Cole said, she felt a familiar dread spread over her — the one that consumed her thoughts and stirred her prayers the day a bulldozer first moved earth behind her home. She recalled picturing the gas rig, how it would loom over her backyard — and the workers, who would see her over the fence when she was home alone. Her husband’s gas grill flashed through her mind — the grill where her boys sometimes roasted marshmallows. There it was, sitting by her backyard fence. Sometimes it sparks, she thought.

Cole and her next-door neighbor, Jana DeGrand, had led their neighborhood’s fight against the well site for two years. It was wearing on her — the hours of research and worry, days spent staring blurry-eyed at a computer screen, searching for one ordinance or state law that would stop the drilling — but Cole resolved to continue.

Not for her, but for her two boys.

“If this is where I’m called,” she said, “this is what I have to do.”