EARTHWORKS

Wendy Davis’ Opponents Say She’ll Kill Texas’ Oil Boom, but What Does Her Record Say?

Dallas Observer | Amy Silverstein

February 11, 2014
Read this article on the publishing site

We know that a Wendy Davis-governed Texas would probably be more into preserving natural resources than a Texas ruled by Greg Abbott, who has sued the EPA a modest 17 times. But in a state famous for its lax environmental regulations, how much tougher would Davis be?

Local environmental issues, particularly fracking, haven't been discussed much by either the Davis or the Abbott campaign. One website dedicated to exposing "the Real Wendy" (paid for by the Republican Party of Texas) has claimed that her energy policies would undermine Texas' domestic energy boom.

That's probably an overstatement, but Davis has pushed for some regulations on oil companies -- nothing stringent enough to put a company out of business, but measures that do have support from anti-drilling activists. Local environmental groups describe her as someone sensitive to their cause.

"I have visited with staff and her office several times," says Sharon Wilson, a spokesman for Earthworks and author of the popular Blue Daze: Drilling Reform blog. "She's tried to pass bills that would actually help people, but they never get out of the committee."

Yet she also served on the Fort Worth City Council at a time when the local government ushered in a new era of heavy urban drilling into north Texas.

"As much as I like Wendy Davis, she was not a good advocate for my side," says Don Young, a Fort Worth local who started an early anti-fracking group, FwCanDo. "She was better than others but not tough enough."

Davis was elected to the Fort Worth City Council in 1999. A few years later, Fort Worth passed its first ordinance to allow fracking. It didn't have a huge affect on the city at first. At that time, the domestic drilling boom was just getting underway, with little public knowledge about its potential risks or rewards. Companies were mostly sticking to rural areas.

Around 2005, that all changed. Gas companies became more aggressive, drilling closer to homes, parks and schools. Local homeowners suddenly found that they were living within 600 feet of industrial zones. So the Fort Worth City Council went to work on a new gas drilling ordinance, supposedly to regulate the unanticipated urban drilling that was invading the city.

But under an industry-friendly Mayor Mike Moncrief, the Fort Worth city government ultimately agreed to pass a new ordinance that made it easy for companies to continue drilling in residential and urban areas.

"Overall, they [the City Council] did exactly what the gas drillers wanted them to do," Young says.

Davis voted to approve the industry-friendly measures along with the other council members. But toward the end of her tenure on City Council, she appeared to have second thoughts about Fort Worth's loose approach to urban drilling. In 2007, she publicly complained that it was too difficult to raise even minor concerns about drilling. "I'm not an anti- gas-well person," she said at a meeting. "The dialogue gets characterized: If you express concerns, you're against it."

Looking back, Young feels that Davis' comments then were provocative and strong but didn't have much impact. "She spoke up when it was too late," he says.

Gary Hogan, who served on the city's gas drilling task force, also recalls Davis speaking out against Fort Worth's ordinance toward the end of her tenure. His interpretation: "She was beginning, I think, to see that this [urban drilling] was going to be a lot more than we thought it was going to be," Hogan says.

As Senator, Davis began pushing for legislation that wasn't overtly anti-drilling but was definitely more beneficial to homeowners than the industry. Among other things, she's pressured TxDOT to allow pipelines to be built along highways, as a way to keep the pipelines and the industrial activity that comes with out of residential areas.

In Fort Worth, for instance, Chesapeake Energy wanted to build a pipeline under Carter Avenue, residential street. "Wendy was very influential at the time in helping to put some political pressure to see that that pipeline got moved out of the neighborhood," Hogan says. In 2010, the TxDOT allowed Chesapeake to build it under Interstate 30 instead, in a move that Davis championed.

Later, in 2011, Davis pushed for adding an amendment to a fracking disclosure bill that would have required gas drilling companies to put so-called "tracer" chemicals in their fracking fluid mix, so that the public could find out if the fluid was seeping out and contaminating water. Wilson praises the bill, even though Davis had framed it in the press as a sort of pro-industry measure: "The goal of this legislation is to reduce the cost of legal burdens on the gas drilling industry or landowners when questions of water contamination arise, while also demonstrating to a groundwater-dependent public that drilling is safe," Davis said at the time.

That amendment was voted down.

Outside of drilling, she's also worked on some air quality issues. Another local group, Downwinders at Risk, says that Davis tried to help their cause when some of the oldest, highest-polluting cement kilns were still burning hazardous waste in Midlothian.

"She worked with us on legislation to make it state policy to purchase the cement on cleaner, newer kilns," says Downwinders At Risk's Jim Schermbeck.

Texas lawmakers didn't pass the legislation -- shocking, right? -- but "she was supportive," Schermbeck says.

Young, from FwCanDo, adds that Davis has approached him for votes when she was serving the on Senate. For the past few years, she agreed to co-sponsor his Prairie Fest, an annual solar-powered festival of vendors selling "green" products. He's hoping she'll sponsor the event again this year.

"I'm a supporter," he says, "even though I don't expect her to be anti-fracking or -drilling."

Tagged with: texas, fracking