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In Fort Worth, gas boom fuels public outreach plan

FORT WORTH, Texas (Reuters) - Even in oil-rich Texas, homeowners seldom had companies at the front door asking permission to drill in their back yards -- until recently.

Huge hopes for gas production from the Barnett Shale, much of which lies directly under this city of 500,000, changed that, and residents have flooded city hall with questions.

In response, Mayor Mike Moncrief and industry officials have put together the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council to calm fears and help citizens respond intelligently.

“We will do that through ... a number of media, including a Web site, printed materials, community outreach programs, seminars,” said director Ed Ireland, an industry veteran.

Companies are paying for the effort but “it’s going to function more as a third party,” Ireland said.

The industry would rather deal with informed groups than with nervous individuals one by one, said Gene Powell, editor of widely distributed Barnett Shale Newsletter.

“They’re used to going in and leasing hundreds or thousands of acres at a time,” Powell said.

Fort Worth’s response has evolved since the boom spread into the city early this decade, spokesman Jason Lamers said. Its approach has become a model for other cities, he said.

Of 6,600 wells so far drilled in more than a dozen counties, nearly 800 are inside the Fort Worth city limits, and activity is still increasing, Lamers said.

“I think we could see upwards of 2,000 wells,” he said.

The influx unsettled many residents.

Most did not know the difference between surface and mineral rights, much less whether they owned any oil or gas that may be found thousands of feet beneath their quarter-acre lot.

“Residents were calling the city saying, ‘I’ve got a lease offer for 25 percent royalty and a $300 bonus. Is that a good offer? Should I sign it?’” Lamers said.

Many did own the rights. Texas’ standard home sale contract does not mention minerals, much less reserve them to a seller unless otherwise noted, as in farm and ranch sales.

There is talk of changing that, but meanwhile, the mayor saw that homeowners needed help.

The need was clearer after several thousand people -- far more than expected -- turned out for a Barnett Shale Expo.

Questions included not only financial terms but how long drilling would take and how noisy, ugly and dangerous well-operation would be, officials said.

Some land agents’ tactics fed fear, said Debbie Scrimshire, a suburban realtor. Her family’s first lease of their land for Barnett drilling was a sour experience, she said.

“We didn’t understand the game,” Scrimshire said.

But a number of companies already were reaching out, drilling multiple wells from centrally located pads, controlling noise and low-profiling production equipment.

“We just need to do a better job of educating people,” said community adviser Deborah West of EnCana Corp.

After all, the economic boost is welcome, Lamers said. A recent study estimated the impact at 55,000 jobs and $5 billion a year.

“A partnership is being created between companies and landowners, and it benefits both,” said Frank King, chairman of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.