Business in the Barnett Shale, Fort Worth's mother lode, is about to get more complicated.
A mining explosion in West Virginia and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have nothing to do with natural gas drilling in North Texas. Except that those high-profile disasters are reshaping public attitudes about regulation of the energy industry, and there's no escaping the fallout here.
Opposition to urban drilling was already gaining momentum, primarily over concerns about air quality. Even Fort Worth, one of the great beneficiaries of drilling, is forming a committee to study emissions that could end up reworking local ordinances.
On Saturday, Flower Mound voters elected a slate of candidates who supported a moratorium on gas drilling, and the town manager promptly imposed a temporary halt. Voters will decide on an official moratorium in November.
Flower Mound has a history of restrictive zoning and growth limits; a decade ago, it banned new housing plans to slow development. But its resistance to drilling is not unique. Cities in Colorado, Wyoming, West Virginia and elsewhere have been trying to exert more local control recently.
That's not a bad thing, if the improvements make drilling safer and healthier -- without driving costs so high that the activity dries up.
Striking the right balance is the tricky part. The oil spill in the Gulf, for instance, has raised doubts about whether the industry was monitored closely enough. The Minerals Management Service has been plagued by scandals, and on Tuesday, there was a proposal to break the unit into two groups -- one to inspect rigs and oversee safety, the other to handle royalties.
The change is an acknowledgment that the industry and regulators have been too cozy, and the pendulum seems certain to swing the other way.
President Barack Obama already brings a shift in energy strategy, with his emphasis on renewable sources and reducing carbon emissions. In North Texas, the bigger change will come if the feds take on a larger role as overseer of the local gas play.
That seems likely, because more people fear that gas drilling is contributing to air pollution and posing a threat to clean water. That's an invitation to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is led by a regional administrator, Al Armendariz, who has challenged the industry's pollution record in the past.
Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group, says that gas executives met with Armendariz on Monday to talk about collecting more data and evaluating a future course.
"It's already leading to more regulations," Ireland said about current attitudes toward energy production. He cited the Flower Mound moratorium and the actions under way in Fort Worth.
Talk to industry people like Ireland or opponents like Tammi Vajda of the Flower Mound Citizens Against Urban Drilling, and you hear an identical talking point: Both want responsible drilling.
How that plays out in controlling emissions, dealing with wastewater, regulating equipment in the field, monitoring health threats and more will be the subject of much debate.
The gas industry would rather answer to state agencies, in part because rules can be tailored to those regions. Texas tends to be more accommodating to drilling than California, for instance, because of its wildcat history and culture.
Environmental activists want to see a stronger federal role, because that would force all states to meet higher standards. It might also be tougher to sway federal regulators, the thinking goes.
And there's a trade-off: "The feds usually add costs and slow everything down," says Bud Weinstein, an economist and associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.
After the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the government stopped approving offshore drilling leases, even though Obama had recently proposed lifting some restrictions. That's sensible, as everyone deals with the catastrophe and tries to figure out how to prevent future problems.
The explosion in the coal mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 men last month, is also prompting a review of regulators and their response. That also seems appropriate.
What's different with the Barnett Shale is that there has been no sudden event, no public disaster to prompt an outcry. The industry has a strong safety record since drilling began here about a decade ago.
But fears about benzene and other air pollutants took hold after independent studies documented a rise. News reports captured infrared images of emissions, heightening awareness and prompting new rounds of air tests by the city and the state. Whether drilling is contributing to health problems is unclear.
The industry often points to other polluters, such as cars, trucks and factories, that have a larger impact on air quality. And they're quick to highlight the boon to the local economy, as well as the value of gas as a domestic energy source.
Four of the top 10 taxpayers in Tarrant County are natural gas companies, easily contributing more than some of the best-known employers. In the past two years, Fort Worth has received almost $85 million from gas bonuses, leases and taxes related to drilling. Over the same time, Arlington banked almost $38 million. Those are vital contributions when city budgets are strapped.
The gas industry has also generated thousands of jobs, helping Tarrant weather the recession.
It's good policy to scrutinize the environmental effects of gas drilling and to require companies to adopt the industry's best practices. But in evaluating the costs, the benefits matter, too.