Denton officials are expected to revisit requiring 20-foot setbacks around plugged gas wells early next year after City Council members asked for a new ordinance on that issue.
That request came at Paul Meltzer’s urging during a council meeting on Oct. 20. He is the at-large Place 6 council member and is running for reelection against pastor Jim Mann in Tuesday’s runoff elections.
“The evidence presented to us is that there’s much less risk associated with a plugged well,” Meltzer said. “Just don’t build on top of them. Especially for wells that aren’t producing much, anyway, it’s a good way to reclaim the usefulness of that land with appropriate setbacks.”
Of the 540 gas wells in Denton, 38 of them are inactive. They are operated by 32 energy companies.
“Gas wells in Denton go way, way back,” Mayor Pro Tem Jesse Davis said. “It’s a very complex issue. A setback is basically ... a provision on how far back from a well something can be built. We have setbacks from street rights of way. We have setbacks on how far from houses a new well can be built.”
But the primary concern is keeping developers from building on top of plugged wells — something existing city ordinance does not prohibit.
“The intent of establishing a minimum setback around a plugged well is to prevent structures from being built over the wells in the future and to ensure that the plugged well can be accessed in the event that maintenance or repair is needed,” Scott McDonald, Denton’s director of development services, said in an email.
Real estate broker Aaron Layman, owner of Layman Properties in Denton, called the acquisition of land where wells have been plugged “kind of a mixed bag.”
“For some buyers, it is more of a concern,” he said. “It just depends on the way aesthetics play out and how the developer plans the space. Normally, you have easements wherever those wells and pipelines are.”
Layman said a pipeline runs through his neighborhood and that other homeowners there have shown no concern about oil and gas safety.
“It just depends on how developers are selling it to homeowners,” he said. “If they have a good safety record, there is a pretty strong argument that the area is relatively safe.”
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, requires that wells be plugged no later than a year after they have been abandoned or are nonproducing, city documents note. State law allows municipalities no authority to regulate plugging.
“But we can talk about surface activities, setbacks and so on,” Meltzer said.
Council members’ discussion on Oct. 20 centered on whether mandating a 20-foot radius around a plugged well is warranted, even after reviewing what other cities require when land is developed in the immediate vicinity of plugged wells.
The risks, according to documents provided by the city, include groundwater contamination and methane emissions. When wells are plugged, cement must be used to “protect groundwater by preventing the intrusion of oil and gas into water strata.” Typically, that requires a 100-foot minimum plug.
And city ordinance does not prohibit developers from building on top of plugged wells, officials said.
“Staff researched studies conducted in Texas and was unable to locate any studies that specifically examined risks associated with plugged wells in Texas,” documents state. “In Texas, the Railroad Commission [has] worked to minimize the risks of orphaned or abandoned well locations through the statewide Plugging and Abandonment program, which plugs orphaned or abandoned wells, and by maintaining a GIS database of plugged well locations.”
Furthermore, city officials inspect well-plugging activities and monitor site remediation.
“If there is a leak, it needs to be able to be vented instead of in the ground,” Mayor Chris Watts said. “The gas is getting into the ground and finding trenches and cavities … and then somebody lights something, and that is a very tragic result. But that is a pipeline issue.”
Watts said he cannot remember in the modern era a catastrophic event involving a gas well in Denton.
“We had a well blowout four or five years ago by the airport, but I don’t think it injured anyone or damaged property,” he said. “One was struck by lightning.”
For prospective homebuyers considering property where plugged wells exist, Watts said easements allow “people to be notified.”
“That is why I want the pipe sticking out of the ground to mark the property,” Watts said. “It’s an abandoned well that’s been plugged. People will know it’s there so they can make an informed choice. If you are buying a house in that area and see that, maybe you will be fine with it or find a different part of the subdivision.”
No new wells have been drilled in Denton since 2014. To view a map of active and plugged wells, visit http://bit.ly/2JEWLyX.