Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TOP STORY > >Natural-gas industry comes with a price

Leader staff writer

The natural gas industry that has developed in Arkansas since 2004 is reputed to have an economic impact of $22 billion through 2012.

But not everyone is pleased it has moved into the Natural State despite the estimated 11,000 jobs that came with it.

They don’t like the drilling rigs that operate around the clock or the countless trucks that are damaging their roads, damage that Dan Flowers, Highway Department director, says will cost $218.7 million to repair. They are concerned that runoff from the construction of roads to access the almost 2,500 gas wells is carrying silt and chemicals that is killing aquatic life.

Although Lawrence Bengal, director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, says none of the 30 or so reported problems with water wells have been caused by the drilling, even some of those with new-found wealth from gas production fear their water wells may become contaminated from the fracturing process that breaks the shale so the gas can be extracted.

They have seen “Gasland,” the documentary on the industry that shows they have seen online the bottles of discolored water taken from Arkansas water wells after gas wells were drilled.

Then there is the 42-inch gas pipe that runs across wide open land, across fences and gardens. It will be completed this year.

That 185-mile pipeline from Conway to Panola County, Miss., is expected to produce more that 2,000 jobs and pay Arkansas workers $52 million. Building the line is the only way to get the gas out of the state and to customers in the North because the existing line can no longer handle the load.

Owned by a private corporation, it will provide a service for other private companies, but the property owners who provide the right-of-way for the big line have no choice about selling the use of their land. They either negotiate for a fair price or they go to court and let a judge determine the price because the company has legal authority to declare eminent domain and take what it needs.

Last year, State Rep. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) sponsored a bill restricting private oil and gas companies from claiming eminent domain for wells and the gathering lines that connect wells and feed the larger lines, but his bill died in the House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Develop-ment.

And in March, the state Supreme Court upheld a Cleburne County Circuit Court ruling that said the state law giving eminent domain to all pipeline companies, Arkansas Code Annotated section 23-15-101, is not unconstitutional.

In the Beebe area, on the fringe of the Fayetteville Shale production area or “play” as it is called, some residents of the Opal Community are upset about the odor from Arkansas Reclamation, which reclaims the diesel from drill cuttings. And they are concerned that chemicals from the plant are polluting White Oak Creek, which runs behind it.

About 200 of those with questions and concerns about the industry that has developed in the Fayetteville Shale, which lies a mile or so underground in White, Van Buren, Faulkner, Cleburne, Conway, Franklin, Independence, Johnson and Pope counties, attended a presentation in Clinton on July 16 by Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish, Texas, who told them they’d better get control of the situation now before it is too late. They need to get the state to regulate the gas industry.

Clark, Texas, re-incorporated in 2000 as Dish. It is known as the little town in north Texas that changed its name to get free satellite TV for its 180 residents.

But now, because of Tillman’s appearance on “Gasland,” his blog and his public appearances, it is becoming known as the little town that has been taken over by the gas industry. In a two-square-mile area, Dish has 18 gas wells, 20 pipelines, 11 compressor stations and three metering stations.

“I’m not anti-drilling. I’m not anti-industry. I just think there is a better way,” Tillman told his audience at the Clinton Senior Center.

The big companies know how to get the gas out of the shale with less impact to the land and the people who live there, he said.

But they can’t justify the added cost to their stockholders unless the state requires that they follow those better practices.

In January, after repeated complaints that the chemicals in the air from the compressor stations were making Dish residents ill, the Texas Health Department tested the young adult members of 28 households who voluntarily gave blood and urine samples for chemical testing.

In May, preliminary reports showed that 65 percent of the households had detectable levels of toluene, 53 percent had detectable levels of m-/p-Xylene, and 46 percent had o-Xylene in their systems, all known chemicals of natural-gas production that had also been detected in the air.

“Everything we found in our air studies, we found in our citizens,” Tillman said.