Denton fracking ban may have broader impact

A. Lee Graham

Denton’s Nov. 5 vote to ban fracking has many in the industry wondering if other communities may adopt similar measures. Such a plan is unlikely to gain traction in Fort Worth, according to Ken Morgan, director of Texas Christian University’s Energy Institute. “Most of the drilling for natural gas is about over in Fort Worth, so I doubt it will be a big issue, although some anti-fracking groups may still want to force the issue as a demonstration of their commitment to stop drilling and fracking in the U.S.,” he said.

Morgan and other proponents of natural gas drilling shook their heads as voters on Nov. 4 expressed their opposition to hydraulic fracturing, rejecting a campaign backed by big oil and gas companies opposing the ban. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process of injecting pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to break apart rock and release oil and natural gas deposits.

The vote made Denton, which sits atop the Barnett Shale natural gas reserve, the first city in Texas to pass such a ban. The Texas General Land Office and the Texas Oil and Gas Association followed the vote by suing the city of Denton in opposing its newly approved ordinance. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to keep the city from enforcing the fracking ban. “TXOGA believes that the courts of this state should give a prompt and authoritative answer on whether Denton voters had the authority under state law to enact a total ban on hydraulic fracturing within the city limits,” attorney Thomas R. Phillips, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas said in a statement. “A ban on hydraulic fracturing is inconsistent with state law and therefore violates the Texas Constitution.” Final returns show the ban passed by a 59-41 percent margin. Mayor Chris Watts said the city would move to enforce it. Though existing permits would remain valid, opponents have called it a wholesale ban on drilling.

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“The City Council is committed to defending the ordinance and will exercise the legal remedies that are available to us should the ordinance be challenged,” Watts said in a statement shortly after election results were released on Nov. 5. David Porter, a commissioner on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, said he was “disappointed that Denton voters fell prey to scare tactics.” He added that such a ban could threaten the state’s “energy renaissance.” Sharing that view was Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group based in Fort Worth. “It is unfortunate that many Denton voters were misled into believing that Denton could violate the Texas Constitution by superseding the Railroad Commission’s regulatory authority over oil and gas drilling and illegally taking private property in the form of mineral rights,” Ireland said.

“Whatever the ultimate decisions are, the losers will be the taxpayers in the city of Denton as they pay for long and costly legal battles,” Ireland said. While the Denton vote may serve as a bellwether for the potential of activism to slow fracking, the picture nationally was more measured. Two California counties approved bans and one in the state rejected any restrictions. One Ohio ban proposal was approved and three were voted down. “There’s no question that it’s a threat,” Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said of the backlash to drilling. Activists opposed to oil and gas development who failed to beat back fracking at the state and federal level “have largely turned their efforts to local communities.” More than 400 communities around the country have weighed local bans on drilling or hydraulic fracturing, the technique of cracking subterranean rocks to release oil and gas, according to a running list kept by Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group.

Many of the measures, which are part of what activists are calling the “local control” movement, have been passed in areas that haven’t seen much drilling. Colorado, where oil production has increased at a fast pace, is one of the exceptions as five municipalities now have voted to ban fracking. Three of the five local bans in Colorado have been overturned by industry legal action. Denton makes another. Home to the University of North Texas, Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale where about 275 wells already have been drilled within the city. Most, if not all, were fracked. The results “will stand up” to legal challenges from industry, Cathy McMullen, president of Frack Free Denton, said in an emailed statement. “The vote shows the need for more educational efforts in communities and more proactive outreach with local residents to make sure their concerns are addressed,” said Steve Everley, a spokesman with Energy in Depth, an industry-backed group that promotes fracking. “There’s nothing inherently unsafe about oil and gas development, but there are always opportunities to convey that fact better.”

Everley said the strongest support for the ban came from precincts on campus, while a majority of homeowners in residential neighborhoods opposed it. “If this place in the heart of the oil and gas industry can’t live with fracking, then who can?” said Bruce Baizel, director of energy programs at Earthworks, a group that has advocated for the bans. “Perhaps banning fracking in Denton, Texas will finally force the oil and gas industry to clean up its act.” The push to limit fracking began years ago but got a boost in June when Frack Free Denton submitted a petition to the City Council with enough signatures to force a vote. Because the council rejected it, the measure went to a public vote. Supporters of the ban say fracking pollutes air and drinking water and that the disposal of the vast amounts of water produced by the drilling process could cause earthquakes. Ireland’s group and other agencies counter that it’s cleaner than other forms of energy extraction and can be done safely.