The city council of Denton, TX, has put the brakes on drilling within the Barnett Shale town, at least until Sept. 9, while city staff and council reconsider drilling rules in light of numerous citizen complaints about drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) activity harming their health and quality of life. No new drilling permits are to be issued while the ordinance is in effect.

"...[I]ncreased drilling in close proximity to residential and other protected uses...have resulted in negative and deleterious effects on Denton citizens, calling into question whether the various interests could be better balanced by additional review of the city's ordinances and regulations..." the ordinance enacting the drilling moratorium, which was approved by city council in a 7-0 vote last week.

The move by the city council was seen as a surprise and follows the expiration of a standstill agreement the city had with EagleRidge Energy LLC. The company has been drilling within the city under legacy permits at sites that are near housing developments that sprang up long after the permits had been issued (see Shale DailyApril 10). Some Denton citizens are suing the company to stop the drilling. Meanwhile, a petition by a citizens group has gathered more than enough signatures to have city council consider a ban on hydraulic fracturing or to put a measure banning fracking on the ballot in November.

If Denton were to enact a ban on fracking, it would be the first municipality in energy-rich Texas to do so. What happens in the city is being watched by drilling interests as well as anti-fracking activists around the country and internationally.

Denton County’s natural gas production, which climbed from 163.7 Bcf in 2006 to a high of 260.8 Bcf in 2011, has been dwarfed by the Barnett Shale’s sharp production increases over the same period -- from 720.1 Bcf in 2006 to 2.07 Tcf in 2011 and then 2.10 Tcf in 2012.

At the time of the council vote last Tuesday evening, no drilling was under way in Denton, according to city public information officer Lindsey Baker. She told NGI's Shale Daily that no hydraulic fracturing of existing wells is to be permitted while the moratorium is in effect. Producing wells that are currently operating will be allowed to continue, she said. The city has the option of ending the moratorium early or extending it.

"A moratorium is hereby imposed on the acceptance, receipt, processing or approval of applications for gas well permits within the corporate limits of the city of Denton, any applications for specific use permits, or gas well development site plans, of any nature or type, or amendments thereto, including expressly any amendments to prior approved or pending applications for gas well development plats..." the ordinance reads. Some exceptions to the ordinance are provided, and operators are able to request a variance in light of "a unique and undue hardship."

The council vote followed about five minutes of public discussion after council members had met in closed session. The standstill agreement with EagleRidge expired at midnight Tuesday, May 6, the day of the vote, Baker said.

"Very few people, I think, were expecting this [moratorium vote]," Baker said. "The city was in a position that we had had a standstill agreement with EagleRidge, one of the operators here in the city that has been doing some hydraulic fracturing in the area.

"During that standstill agreement the intent was to negotiate on mutually agreeable terms that we could move forward with. But unfortunately those negotiations fell through so thereafter the council decided to enact a moratorium so that they could go back to the gas well ordinance and make revisions that could better address some of the issues that we have been concerned with."

Plans are for the city to do a rework over the summer of its latest gas drilling ordinance, which was enacted in January 2013.

"I'd like to see an ordinance or redraft addressing the city's continued interest and concern in protecting our citizens from the impact of gas well drilling in the city," said Council member Dalton Gregory prior to the vote. "I'd also like to see consideration given to encourage the clustering of gas wells in order to open up land use for the future development in the city. I also think that we need to address the insurance and bonding provisions of the current ordinance to make sure that the provisions are adequate and equitable.

"I think we need to add some requirements somewhere in our ordinance that would give notice to landowners regarding the location of gas well drilling and production in the city. I also know that staff has noted some areas of our ordinance which we might need to review more closely."

Separately in Dallas, Fort Worth-based Trinity East Energy LLC is suing the city for millions of dollars after its council voted last year to deny the company the permits it needed to drill on leases for which it had paid the city more than $19 million (see Shale DailyFeb. 14).