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Fueling America

Urban drilling bonanza pits neighbor against neighbor

  • Story Highlights
  • Natural gas drilling has become widespread across the Fort Worth, Texas, area
  • Region sits on the Barnett Shale, where gas is abundant
  • Preacher says gas has helped his church: "What a God we serve"
  • Opponent says "gas drilling ... has no business in an urban area"
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By Ed Lavandera
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FORT WORTH, Texas (CNN) -- Bishop Kenneth Spears always thought gifts from God came from above. He never imagined that the gifts would be hiding under his church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Bishop Kenneth Spears says natural gas has saved his church. "What a God we serve," he says.

Bishop Kenneth Spears says natural gas has saved his church. "What a God we serve," he says.

"The Bible says, 'Every place the sole of your foot should tread upon, I'll give it to you,' " said Spears, of the First St. John Missionary Baptist Church. "I walked and believed that if I prayed over that ground, if I walked over that ground, something good would come of it."

In 2006, he learned that all 15 acres of the church's property are on one of the largest natural gas fields in the country, known as the Barnett Shale.

"What a God we serve," Spears said, followed by great laughter. Video Watch an oil drilling bonanza »

Spears' church and thousands of residents around the Fort Worth area are cashing in on a unique urban drilling bonanza.

With the development of horizontal drilling technology and with gas prices sky-high, energy companies are racing to tap into the Barnett Shale natural gas field.

The Barnett Shale is the most-productive natural gas field in such a highly populated area spanning 5,000 square miles. The drilling here is being watched closely in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, which also have natural gas fields under urban areas. See where the Barnett Shale is located »

Energy companies in the Fort Worth area are going door-to-door, negotiating with people for access to mineral rights under their homes. That means residents are offered a bonus check and future monthly royalty checks.

Spears' church received a $32,000 bonus and receives between $3,000 and $10,000 a month in royalty checks. The money is helping pay for a multimillion-dollar expansion and a new sanctuary.

"We're making a lot of millionaires up here in the Barnett Shale area," said Julie Wilson, vice president of Chesapeake Energy, one of the energy companies drilling wells in the Fort Worth area.

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce says the urban drilling craze has created more than 50,000 jobs and will pump nearly $1 billion in tax revenue into the city's economy.

But opponents of this urban drilling say that it shouldn't be done in populated areas and that the promises of many people getting rich aren't true. They say that for most people, the payouts are modest.

How much money residents get depends on how much property they own and how much gas -- if any -- is found. The dollar figure also depends on each resident's negotiating skills with energy companies, experts say. The money can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.

"It's a divide and conquer strategy by going around and giving everybody enough money to keep them quiet. Hush money is what I call it," said Don Young, a community activist who operates a blog called "Gas drilling is very dirty; it's very dangerous."

To 72-year-old Jerry Horton, the drilling is a threat to her cherished front yard. To move the natural gas through the city, Chesapeake Energy needs to bury a pipeline in her yard. She's been offered almost $13,000, up from the $3,000 she was initially offered.

"I wouldn't sell my front yard for a million dollars," said Horton, a retired artist who has lived in the same house for 53 years.

Chesapeake Energy recently sued Horton for access to her front yard, claiming eminent domain. The company says pipelines are crucial to keep the natural gas flowing and allow people to cash in the profits under the ground.

"I understand we need to pump our own oil, our own gas," Horton said. "But we don't need to destroy our homes, all of our trees and blow ourselves up. Who's going to be here to enjoy the gas then?"

Energy companies say that drilling for natural gas is safe and done in an environmentally friendly way. But opponents say the drilling is dangerous and a threat to the environment.

"Gas drilling ... has no business in an urban area. So I don't want to contribute to a company that's doing that to my community," said Young, who refused to let his property be used.


While energy companies maintain the drilling is not a threat to homes, some question the impact of drilling beneath neighborhoods. Young and other activists also are concerned about air and water pollution, soil contamination, health and safety issues and the loss of green space and wildlife.

"We're guinea pigs," Young said. "We're the first large metropolitan area ever to have intense natural gas drilling going on in our neighborhood, right in the heart of the city."

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