For complex reasons, our city council rep (as well as several others and the mayor) voted in favor of urban drilling projects.

According to current maps of the Barnett Shale, Lake Highlands is far enough east that we aren’t an attractive drilling target, but future exploration might change that. Meanwhile, an upcoming vote to revise Dallas’ ordinance on governing urban fracking matters to us, here and now.

This past summer, our Dallas City Council made headlines when it rejected three drilling leases that had been granted to Trinity East. The company operates more than 100 wells in neighboring Tarrant and Denton counties. In 2008 Trinity paid $19 million to Dallas for the right to drill on city parkland.

To say the council “rejected” the leases doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, a majority of council members plus Mayor Rawlings (nine out of 14) voted in favor of drilling, but the rules required a super-majority of 12 to prevail against the advice of the City Plan Commission. That’s right, CPC had already rejected the leases. Twice. Among those who voted in favor of drilling were our District 10 Councilman Jerry Allen and neighboring District 9’s Sheffie Kadane.

This plot is already thicker than hydraulic fracking fluid (a combination of water, sand and secret industry chemicals) but even the reason some members voted in favor of honoring the leases is not as straightforward as it seems.

Both Rawlings and Allen are on record saying they fear a lawsuit from Trinity East more than they fear the threat of fracking on public land. That’s because the leases would have expired in February 2014.

A majority of council members plus Mayor Rawlings (nine out of 14) voted in favor of drilling, but the rules required a super-majority of 12 to prevail against the advice of the City Plan Commission. That’s right, CPC had already rejected the leases. Twice.

Before the vote, the mayor said, “If we look at Trinity East’s hand, the cards are not so good. The price of drilling is $4 million to $5 million a well. The second card is the price of natural gas, which is below the rate of profitability … Experts told me the productivity of these reserves are uneconomic. There’s been no successful wells drilled in this area.”

In other words, those who voted in favor of allowing drilling were actually betting on a win-win outcome: That Trinity East would not drill, nor could they sue.

Because six council members were not willing to take that gamble, the value of the leases, which were speculative from the beginning, will now be decided in court.

For now the drama is over, but the city council still needs to decide how Dallas will govern fracking in the future. In October the council plans to vote on revising city ordinances that say how close a pad site can be built to existing structures like homes, schools and businesses.

Here are a few numbers to help orient you:

The Railroad Commission of the State of Texas requires only 200 feet.

Dallas’ current ordinance requires 300 feet.

In Fort Worth, where residents already live with urban fracking, the ordinance requires a distance of 600 feet. But that requirement often is eroded by special permits and waivers.

A Dallas task force spent months researching and visiting drilling sites and ultimately recommended a setback distance of 1,000 feet to the City Plan Commission. The CPC discussed this recommendation in June of this year, and commissioners decided they would prefer to make the setback distance even more stringent: 1,500 feet. Environmental activists rejoiced.

Mysteriously, when the ordinance was discussed again in August, drafts of the revisions did not reflect the change to either 1,500 feet or even 1,000, but had reverted to “300.”

Some think that even this finesse was driven by fear of a lawsuit from Trinity East, but now that the council has rejected those leases, maybe we can get down to a serious discussion about our new ordinance. Now is the time to strengthen our ordinance before another company comes in and gets the wrong idea from another city manager.