When the governor of Colorado implemented a task force last fall with the goal of reaching compromises between the oil and gas industry and communities adversely affected by drilling, many believed Colorado would become the bellwether state for resolving similar disputes creeping up across the nation.
That is, until states like Texas and Oklahoma recently slammed down the gavel and issued laws that outright prohibit cities and towns from banning hydraulic fracturing.
As individual communities throughout the United States pass laws or introduce ballot initiatives to quell a multitude of concerns over drilling, the pressure to settle differences between industry and citizens is building.
And somewhere between states ruling with an iron hand versus relinquishing their power over industry to municipalities lays the middle ground where many believe an answer can be found.
Don't Mess With Texas
After the city of Denton, Texas, in the Barnett Shale voted to ban hydraulic fracturing last November, the Texas legislature shifted into high gear to ensure no other Texas town would follow Denton's renegade move.
On May 18, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 40 into law, prohibiting cities and towns from banning hydraulic fracturing - a practice that has become the target for many common complaints associated with drilling, including dust, traffic and noise pollution.
On May 29, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed Senate Bill 809, which prevents municipalities and counties from banning hydraulic fracturing and other oil and gas operations. The law will go into effect 90 days from the day it was signed.
The Texas law took effect immediately, as it was approved by the state's House and Senate by more than a two-thirds majority.
"This bill is so incredibly important," said the Texas governor in a statement, explaining it does a "profound job of protecting private property rights."
"This law ensures that Texas avoids a patchwork quilt of regulations that differ from region to region, differ from county to county or city to city," he added.
The ban that passed in Denton was largely backed by the groups Frack Free Denton and the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, whose spokesperson, Cathy McMullen, said after the city's November vote: "They can't drill a well 300 feet from a park anymore. They can't flare 200 feet from a child's bedroom anymore."
McMullen's group is not alone. It is joined by a growing number of anti-drilling and anti-hydraulic fracturing groups across the country that have prompted states including Ohio and New Mexico to push forward with similar legislation as Texas and Oklahoma - all wanting to protect the quest for needed hydrocarbons and to prevent local communities from usurping a state's right to regulate drilling.
"I think what Texas did was very heavy-handed, but it's good because this is a great state, and drilling for oil and gas is what Texas does," said AAPG member Nicolas Brissette, vice president of the AAPG Southwest Section.
"We are an industrial nation," he added. "I have a hard time understanding why many people don't realize where they are in this particular point in the Earth's history. We live in a hydrocarbon age. We need all the energy we can get."
Age of Compromise
While the age of hydrocarbons is upon us, Brissette was quick to point out that while a blanket, statewide law will indeed protect the rights of mineral owners, a compromise between the state and individual cities, such as Denton, which battle a variety of drilling-related issues, might be a more effective solution in the long run.
Immediately following the Texas bill being signed into law, Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, issued the following statement:
"By advocating for and signing this bill, Gov. Abbott has succeeded in seizing power away from local governments working to protect us from the real dangers of dirty drilling."
"There should have been more dialogue between Denton and the industry before the state came down and said that cities can't control their resources," Brissette said. "How does the industry respond to something like Denton? There has to be patience on both sides."
A solution could be as simple as industry doing a better job of listening to a community's concerns and making adjustments accordingly, and communities opening to their minds to the truths and falsehoods about hydraulic fracturing rather than running on fear, Brissette said.
Living in Midland, Texas, AAPG member David J. Entzminger, past president of the AAPG Southwest Section, said that six 10,000-foot horizontal wells lie beneath his subdivision, so that residents are not living adjacent to surface wells. Instead, the nearest surface well was drilled 1.5 miles away from the neighborhood.
In the case of Denton and other cities - whose growth has slowly encroached upon land rich in oil and gas - operators who own mineral rights have drilled wells with the sole purpose of extracting hydrocarbons, sometimes blind to how drilling in tight quarters might affect residents, Entzminger explained.
Many residents in Denton complained of wells drilled within several hundred feet of children's bedroom windows.
"Some companies have not been as accommodating as they could be," Entzminger said. However, "some surface owners have been so narrow-minded that it doesn't matter what a company does. They are not going to let you go after your mineral rights."
The laws passed by Texas and Oklahoma set the stage for supporting industry and protecting private property rights, Entzminger said.
"Instead of getting multiple organizations with different agendas making a whole bunch of rules, we get a master rule to at least lead the way with leeway," he added, explaining that the new Texas law allows cities to continue regulating fire and emergency response, traffic, lights, noise and some setbacks.
Had Texas and Oklahoma not acted, Entzminger said cities could have set up roadblocks - such as outright drilling bans - that could have made it "impossible" for industry to overcome.
Pointing to agencies like the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry for the state, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which serves to protect public health and natural resources, Entzminger said both have the authority to properly protect residents without the need for increased local authority.
"Our federal and state laws are strong enough to address these issues without having cities start making their own rules," he said. "That would be the same as each individual within a family making rules that affect the entire family. You have to have a bigger picture."
Communication is Key
While statewide laws prohibiting cities from banning hydraulic fracturing might be necessary in some cases, AAPG member Robert Webster, a member of the Southwest Section's Advisory Council, said compromises reached through effective communication on both sides make for the best deals.
In the case of the Denton hydraulic fracturing ban, drilling opponents showed up at city council meetings in droves, whereas supporters remained scarce - tipping the balance in gross proportions.
"It's hard to get pro-frac'ing advocates to a meeting. They are clearly outnumbered," Webster said. "A lot of people like geologists and engineers aren't necessarily the types to be political advocates."
Assembling a task force, such as the one created by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, seems to be the reasonable approach to bringing industries and communities together, Webster said.
"Get people engaged in dialogue. You will never please everybody, but agreeing to more regulations is better than hostility," he added. "It would not hurt to get all groups to come together and come up with a regulation framework that might be more agreeable to those opposed to frac'ing."
An increase in public messaging from the oil and gas industry would not hurt either, Webster added. Delineating the myths from the facts about hydraulic fracturing could quell the fears of those who have heard only one side of the argument.
While most everyone enjoys the countless perks provided by the industry - from the obvious products of fuel to the not-so-obvious byproducts such as plastics - they prefer the hydrocarbons to be produced in someone else's backyard, Entzminger said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last year that his administration would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York, but the state will continue to receive its oil and gas supplies from neighboring Pennsylvania.
The NIMBY, or Not-In-My-Back-Yard, attitude must be properly tackled if energy is to continue being produced in this country at current rates, many say.
For starters, cities should pay attention to how new developments are permitted as populations begin to encroach on oil fields, Entzminger suggested. And likewise, operators can take a vested interest in adjacent communities to ensure that best practices are implemented as development and production takes place.
"We need more education and outreach," Webster added. "It's a shame that the energy industry as a whole is the one industry that is picked on all the time."