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Strauss Charges Texas Legislature to Look at Local Ordinances Governing Surface Use in Barnett Shale

Speaker of the House Joe Strauss has charged the House Committee on Energy Resources as follows for the next legislative session:

“Survey current local ordinances governing surface use of property in oil and gas development. Recommend changes, if any, to the authority of the Railroad Commission to regulate the operation of oil and gas industries in urban areas of the state, particularly the Barnett Shale.”

It seems evident from this charge that operators in the Barnett Shale will be asking the Texas Legislature to curtail the authority of municipalities to issue drilling permits for areas within their jurisdiction, or at least to limit what conditions they can place in those permits. Drilling ordinances such as those in Fort Worth and surrounding cities are becoming quite sophisticated, and place significant conditions on the granting of permits, including distances from houses and other structures, sound limits, handling of frac water, produced water and other wastes, safety requirements, traffic, and damage to surrounding streets. The City of Grapevine has revised its drilling ordinance to require an 8-foot masonry wall around the wellsite and shrubbery between 3 and 5 feet high along the wall. The City of Flower Mound is considering revision of its drilling ordinance to require companies to report their airbrorne emissions and use vapor recovery technology. In some cases, municipal ordinances are so stringent that as a practical matter they prevent drilling within city limits. I expect that eventually constitutional takings claims will be made against cities whose restrictions prevent any mineral development within their limits.

If the Legislature restricts municipal permitting authority, it could enlarge the requirements that the Railroad Commission must impose, or at least consider, when granting permits in urban areas, to include environmental considerations. The Austin Court of Appeals recently held that the Commission must consider the impact of traffic when ruling on an application for a disposal well permit. The Commission has appealed that decision, and the Texas Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case. Texas Citizens for a Safe Future and Clean Water v. Railroad Commission of Texas, 254 S.W.3d 492 (Tex.App.-Austin 2007, review granted March 12, 2010). It appears that the Commission would not relish the idea of regulating issues of traffic, noise, safety and pollution issues in urban settings, in connection with applications for well permits.

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