FORT WORTH, Texas
ith Fort Worth sitting on one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields, 150-foot drilling rigs are rising over golf courses, churchyards, even tree-lined neighborhoods.
“If you don’t have a gas well … get one!” a billboard urges commuters zipping along a busy interstate near downtown.
But not everyone is celebrating the natural gas bonanza here, despite the 55,000 new jobs and extra $5.2 billion it brings to the North Texas economy each year.
Once confined to the lonely prairies, oil and gas exploration has gone urban. In Fort Worth, Los Angeles and other densely populated places, that sometimes pits neighbor against neighbor, forcing them to choose between preserving a tranquil neighborhood or cashing the monthly royalty checks a gas or oil well provides.
Some Fort Worth residents complain that large property owners are the only ones getting a windfall from the gas companies drilling under their land.
In some instances, entire neighborhoods are organizing to keep the wells out. They are worried about the drilling and extraction noise, heavy truck traffic, decreased property values and explosions. An XTO Energy worker was killed last year in a gas well explosion in nearby Forrest Hill.
“Believe me, if people weren’t getting money, nobody would want this,” said Don Young, who founded Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance.
With U.S. demand for natural gas soaring, the city has 500 active gas wells and permits for an additional 225, including 70 now being drilled.
Drilling takes about a month of round-the-clock work, first vertically and then horizontally into a rock formation called the Barnett Shale thousands of feet below. Then comes a week or so of “fracking” — the hydraulic fracturing process that breaks through the dense, black rock and unlocks the natural gas within.
Drilling squabbles also have erupted elsewhere. In Los Angeles, residents living near a 1,200-acre drilling site have complained of noise, vibrations and odors. County officials recently halted new drilling for a year at that site until zoning and environmental issues can be studied further.
Fort Worth initially allowed gas wells within 300 feet of homes but recently extended the boundary to up to 1,000 feet — depending on the permit type — after getting complaints about noise, which can sound like a jet engine. The city also set noise limits and established fines of up to $2,000 a day for violations.
Mayor Mike Moncrief said the ordinance aims to protect residents’ safety and quality of life during a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
“While we are reaping the benefits … we continue to deal with challenges and have to work to tweak this ordinance to fit this industry, which is going to be with us for a long time,” Mr. Moncrief said. “It appears the Barnett Shale play is going to be much bigger than anyone ever thought.”
Because of the city ordinance, some rigs are close to homes but are not actually going up in anyone’s yards. They are on highway medians, airport grounds and other public or private property. The towering rig is erected only during drilling; after that, it is taken down, and the only thing that remains is a 6-foot-high well with horizontal valves, cordoned off by a fence.
To cut down on fracking noise, companies can put sound blankets resembling large, heavy quilts around the equipment.
Once the process is explained to homeowners, they figure, “It won’t affect me and I’ll make some money. Why wouldn’t I do it?” said Larry Dale, president of Fort Worth-based Dale Resources, which has secured about 35,000 leases for Chesapeake Energy.
Gas companies are busy trying to secure landowners’ permission to drill beneath their property.
Gas company representatives, called landmen, woo residents by knocking on doors and holding meetings in community centers and churches. When folks sign contracts to lease rights to their underground minerals, they immediately get a bonus check. Neighbors also share monthly royalty payments equal to one-fourth of the value of the gas extracted from under their homes.
For large property owners, the windfall is enormous. The 18,000-acre Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport received $185 million when it signed a lease last fall and stands to collect millions more in royalties.
But most homeowners get far less. The one-time bonus for a mineral lease on a typical residential lot rarely exceeds $500, with monthly royalty checks of $25 to $50 a month, depending on lot size, well production and gas prices.
At a recent meeting hosted by Mr. Dale’s company, Hallie and John Pierce signed a contract and pocketed a $600 check.
The Fort Worth couple were assured their old oak trees would not be damaged during the drilling. They did not know how close the well would be to their property but weren’t worried about safety or noise.
“I’ve lived near worse,” Hallie Pierce said with a laugh.
The Pierces don’t expect to get rich from the royalties, but said the money would supplement John Pierce’s paycheck from his school system maintenance job.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Hallie Pierce, a stay-at-home mother. “I think the whole thing will be good for the economy here.”
Others aren’t so sure.
Ten homeowner associations representing about 4,800 homes are none too thrilled about a gas company’s plans to drill several wells near their tree-lined neighborhoods of houses built in the 1920s.
“What I’m really hoping is residents will just say no to the lease so we’ll make it economically unviable for the company to drill there,” said Liane Janovsky, a lawyer on a neighborhood association committee.