Tom Blanton stepped out of his home on Eagle Mountain Lake for his morning walk and never came back. He died along the way of a heart attack at 67 years old. Two weeks later, Trinity East, his oil and gas company, sued for the $19 million it paid a cash-strapped City of Dallas back in 2007 for the right to drill and frack the gas-suffused shale beneath.
For a time, Trinity East’s campaign to bring Texas’ shale play to the city’s turf livened up the drowsy proceedings of the plan commission and city council in a way few issues have, before or since. Activists filled the chambers at every hearing for the company’s drilling permits. The line to the podium to harangue the council usually wound up the stairs and back behind the sound booth. But Blanton was always there too. You could count on spotting his broad, suited body and gleaming dome down front at every meeting that concerned Trinity East and the 3,600 acres in northwest Dallas it intended to frack. In the art of guiding permits for urban drilling to approval, Keystone Exploration, the parent of Trinity East, had some experience. It was among the first to spud wells in Fort Worth.
It probably helped that Blanton owned that real estate, but this was part of his selling point to the city: We’ve done this safely before, he claimed.
I met with him and his business partner, Stephen Fort, in their Fort Worth office for a story I wrote last year for the Dallas Observer. Though I questioned the wisdom of introducing heavy mineral extraction into an urban area — particularly one that would erect a derrick on parkland and a compressor station 600 feet from a brand-new soccer complex — I could see why Fort and Blanton were furious with the city. They had answered a request for bids at a time when Dallas wanted to hire 200 new cops and soften the blow of a $1.35 billion bond package whose debt service alone drained city coffers.
Together, Trinity East and XTO Energy paid $34 million for mineral rights to a pocket of shale at the far eastern edge of the Barnett play. This was at a time when producers were creating a surplus of a commodity for which we had once built import terminals. In a memo that sealed the deal for Blanton and Fort, then city manager Mary Suhm assured Trinity East she was “reasonably confident” she could steer its permits toward approval, even as she told the city council that no drilling would take place on parkland.
For a time, they left the gas underground. The surplus depressed the price of the commodity to levels beneath break-even. Trinity East’s lease had a shelf life, though, and it was closing in on its expiration date as the council debated a strict new drilling ordinance that might have the effect of outlawing drilling in Dallas. Citing regulatory uncertainty, XTO pulled out. They could afford to because they’re a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. Trinity East, on the other hand, could not. It hadn’t just bet $19 million here. The Dallas lease was the hub of more than 10,000 acres of mineral rights, extending from Irving to Farmers Branch. Fort and Blanton would never put an exact number on the investment, but claimed it was four times the sum it paid Dallas. They wouldn’t paint it as the kind of money that would break Trinity East and its parent, Keystone Exploration, if they lost it, although I got the sense that this indie might not be able to absorb that kind of hit.
As it became apparent that there might not be the votes to approve its permits, there was the specter of litigation, alluded to by Trinity East’s rep before the council, Dallas Cothrum. Mayor Mike Rawlings urged passage if for no other reason than to avoid the expense of legal counsel and, at worst, a multimillion-dollar judgement. But the hurdle was too high, the path to approval too messy and embarrassing. The permits were voted down by the plan commission, requiring an impossible supermajority at council. Even then, when it was all over and I caught Blanton outside chambers last August, his $19 million investment dissipating like the gas he’d never produce here, he still wouldn’t threaten litigation. “Heavens, I don’t know. We’re so far from that,” he said coyly. “We came to win.”
I had doubts about his fortunes in court. The contract with the city said that Trinity East had to get a special-use permit before it could drill — “a police power that cannot be contracted away.” It may yet have trouble getting around that line. I never doubted this $30 million suit for breach of contract, fraud and unconstitutional taking would come, because I knew they had no other choice. This was the final phase of the fight, and Blanton didn’t get to see it through.
There was always speculation that Trinity East had no real desire to drill in the end. Maybe a lawsuit would pay greater dividends than cheap natural gas on a lease set to expire imminently. That’s why the timing of the suit is a little funny. The price of natural gas has rebounded to its highest level in five years.
I reached out to Fort, his partner, now president and CEO of Trinity East, who had this to say:
Tom was a leader in the Fort Worth community, having been the guiding force and major contributor to his church and a Christian school which he helped found in north Fort Worth. In that role, and in many other charitable endeavors, Tom was always out front in doing the work, while quietly providing the funding so that others could be honored. In business, he was an innovator in the recycling and bio fuel industry, and he was a pioneer in several unique real estate developments and in the drilling and development of the Barnett Shale. Tom served on the committee that formulated the Fort Worth Drilling ordinance, which became a model for many other cities in the area. Besides the school, Tom’s greatest passion was for show cars and very fast cars.
Tom was a model business partner, a devoted family man, and a great friend. He will be greatly missed.