At their upcoming meeting on Monday, July 27 the McAllen City Commission will consider a permit application from Dewbre Petroleum Corporation to drill a new gas well within the McAllen city limits north of 10th and Trenton.
This should be an easy decision – the City Commissioners should reject the permit.
Drilling for natural gas is not a benign activity; gas wells emit carcinogens and other toxins, the drilling often damages nearby homes, and wells lower property values.
There have been numerous problems with McAllen’s existing gas wells. For example, on May 22 and 23rd of this year a gas well flared continuously in McAllen near the intersection of Bicentennial and Dove. For two days it burned inefficiently and incompletely, and puffs of smoke could be seen rising from the flame. Its fumes irritated the eyes and sinuses of nearby homeowners, and many filed complaints with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality.
On June 8 another well, located at Dove and 25th and immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood, flared for hours. Residents were left to wonder what it was that they were breathing, and whether the effects of the emissions would last after the burning sensation had left their eyes and throats.
On July 14, KRGV-TV aired an in-depth examination of the effects of a gas well adjacent to the neighborhood of Fairway Grande Village. Residents complained, and the news crew confirmed, that houses in the neighborhood were riddled with cracks and damaged foundations. Homeowners alleged that drilling operations were to blame, and sued the company in 2009.
Researchers have found that gas wells also impact property values. A University of Denver study found that a majority of people that they surveyed would not buy a home if they knew that it was near an active well. They also found that bids for homes near gas wells were 25 percent lower than comparable homes with no nearby drilling.
In the KRGV story residents also brought up the issue of emissions from the well. Alejandra Vivian said, “It’s an itch you get in your throat and nose when you breathe in the air.” She continued, “My son had a cough for three weeks that wouldn’t go away. I took him to the doctor. My son took medication. The cough wouldn’t go away.” No one in McAllen should have to suffer that way in their own home.
Emissions are an important issue, especially in the case of wells such as the new one proposed by Dewbre Petroleum, which is surrounded by homes and schools. The gas that wells pull up is not pure methane. The methane that they seek is mixed in with a whole stew that includes substances ranging from water vapor to mercury, volatile organic compounds, and other carcinogens.
Neither McAllen nor the state of Texas require the monitoring of emissions during drilling or flaring, so residents cannot learn what toxins, and in what quantities, they are breathing day in and day out.
Studies have found a host of health impacts suffered by those who live near gas drilling operations. Earlier this month a University of Pennsylvania study linked proximity to gas wells to increases in hospital admissions for cardiovascular events. A 2014 study by the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University found that mothers who lived closer to gas wells were more likely to have babies born with a variety of birth defects such as oral clefts and congenital heart defects.
The notion that natural gas provides clean energy is also a myth. While gas may burn cleaner than coal, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more powerful that CO2. Over a 20 year period following its release into the atmosphere, methane has an impact on climate change that is 86 times greater than carbon dioxide.
Gas wells also threaten their neighbors with possibility of blowouts, and in Texas these occur all too frequently. In May of this year there were two well blowouts in Karnes City. The largest required the evacuation of everyone within a 3 mile radius.
The Dewbre well proposed for north McAllen is around 500 feet from the nearest house. Neighborhoods surround it, an elementary school is less than a mile away, and the shopping centers at 10th and Trenton are nearby.
May’s Karnes City blowouts are of course not the only ones that Texas has seen. There was also a gas well blowout in Arlington this past June. The drilling company waited for 2 hours before calling 911, and 42,000 gallons of toxic fracking fluid poured into Arlington’s streets and storm drains. Denton has had many blowouts in recent years, most notably in 2013. In that instance the company did not alert authorities for almost eight hours. Air tests conducted downwind detected 46 hazardous pollutants, including benzene and ethylene dibromide.
City Commissioners may be concerned that Texas infamous “ban on fracking bans” (HB 40) ties the city’s hands and requires that new wells be permitted. It does no such thing. The state legislation prevents municipalities from enacting new ordinances that ban fracking outright, as Denton did in response to years of pollution and property damage inflicted by gas drilling operations. But HB 40 says that, “An ordinance or other measure is considered prima facie to be commercially reasonable if the ordinance or other measure has been in effect for at least five years and has allowed the oil and gas operations at issue to continue during that period.”
McAllen’s gas permitting ordinance has been on the books since 1933, and in the intervening years hundreds of wells have been drilled within McAllen’s city limits. It is therefore unaffected by HB 40, and can and should be used to deny this permit request.
McAllen’s ordinance states that, “The board of commissioners shall have the power and reserves the authority to refuse any application for a permit to drill any well… because of the use to which the land and surroundings are adapted for school,” and there is an elementary school nearby.
A permit may be denied “for health reasons, or safety reasons,” and the toxic emissions associated with gas wells and risk of blowouts certainly meets that standard.
A permit may be denied “where the drilling of such well on such particular location might be injurious, or be a disadvantage to the city or to its inhabitants as a whole, or to a substantial number of its inhabitants,” and this certainly applies to the homeowners who may see their foundations crack, their property values decline, and the air that wafts through their homes poisoned.
It is clearly in the best interest of the city of McAllen and its residents that the City Commissioners reject this new gas well.