House Committee passes compromise on drilling rules

The Orion Drilling Co.'s Perseus drilling rig stands near Encinal in Webb County, Texas, in 2012. Drilling in shale is more expensive than other methods and poses environmental challenges, but the prospect of a growing supply is encouraging analysts to predict greater energy independence for the United States. photo by Eddie Seal).

March 30, 2015

A House committee on Monday approved legislation that would limit local control over oil and gas activities — a committee substitute for a bill that initially stirred anger in city halls across Texas. 

In a 10-1 vote, the House Committee on Energy Resources approved an updated version of House Bill 40, among the most prominent of nearly a dozen bills filed in the aftermath of Denton’s vote in November to ban hydraulic fracturing within the North Texas city’s limits.  

Intended to clarify where local control ends and Texas law begins, HB 40 would pre-empt local efforts to regulate a wide variety of oil and gas activities.  

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But the substitute legislation also includes language that specifies what cities could still regulate, including fire and emergency response, traffic, lights and noise, while also allowing them to enact “reasonable” setbacks between drilling sites and certain buildings. 

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, voted against the bill, while Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, voted “present,” meaning he did not pick a side. 

The legislation – proposed by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo – now heads to the full House. 

The vote drew rebukes from environmentalists, who criticized any attempt to roll back local control. But some representatives for local governments said they were encouraged by changes to the proposal. 

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“It’s a lot better,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “There’s a couple of things we’re not 100 percent happy with, but it’s much better than the filed version.” 

Cities initially worried that the bill would only add to confusion about what municipalities could regulate, potentially taking away tools cities have long used to ensure health and safety. That’s partly because of the bill’s broad definition of what types of oil and gas operations would be “subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the state.” 

The bill also includes what Darby calls a “safe harbor” provision, protecting cities from legal challenges if their ordinances had not triggered litigation in the past five years. 

Sandlin said his group still opposes the bill, but the latest tweaks make it far more palatable. 

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In a one-sentence statement, Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said, “We appreciate the House Energy Resources Committee for moving HB 40 forward in the process and look forward to reviewing the changes in the bill.” 

Last week, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development approved a companion to Darby’s bill. That version did not include any compromise language for cities, but its sponsor, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said he would consider tweaks in the full Senate. 

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at