Texas fracking ban voted down by city council despite residents’ support
Denton 'overwhelmingly' in favor of ban, but council says it fears lawsuits will result
AlJazeera America | Renee Lewis
July 16, 2014
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Officials in Denton, Texas, voted Wednesday against a bid to make their natural gas-rich city the first in its state to ban fracking, despite more than 100 residents speaking out in favor of the ban at a public hearing that ran long into Tuesday night.
Some locals said the city council’s 5-2 decision against enacting the ban — instead passing it to a November ballot for a city-wide vote — was influenced by industry pressure.
Sharon Wilson, a former Denton resident who has campaigned for stronger environmental regulations, told Al Jazeera more than 100 locals spoke out “overwhelmingly” in favor of a fracking ban during the public testimony.
"There were only a tiny handful of people from Denton that opposed the ban," Wilson said. "Everyone else who opposed the ban was from industry, coming from outside Denton."
Chris Watts, Denton mayor, told The Texas Tribune he voted against the ban to give the citizens the right to decide.
The city sits atop the Barnett Shale — estimated to be one of the largest natural-gas reserves in the United States. Though the drilling is a boon for the city’s economy, many residents complain that fracking is increasingly encroaching on their daily lives.
The heavily drilled city of 121,000 people has more than 270 natural gas wells, and there are few restrictions about where such drilling can take place. Rules imposed by the city council in 2013 prohibit the drilling of new wells within 1,200 feet of homes, but there are many existing wells much closer to residential neighborhoods.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process where sand, water and chemicals are shot underground at high pressures to release trapped oil or gas deposits.
Environmentalists argue the process can contaminate nearby water supplies, and seismologists have linked the disposal of fracking wastewater to an increase in earthquakes in some places. Towns just a few hours away from Denton, like Reno and Azle, don't have histories of seismic activity, but have faced dozens of earthquakes in the past year amid increased drilling.
Wilson said one resident, an engineer who lives less than 200 feet from the drilling, said her children have been traumatized by the deafening noises involved with the process — which she said even takes place during the night, complete with bright lights that some residents say keep them up at night.
Some residents have also complained of nosebleeds, headaches and nausea as a result of chemicals they are exposed to as part of the fracking process.
Industry representatives who attended Tuesday’s meeting said that enacting a ban would only be followed by litigation. Texas separates land ownership into two categories, surface and mineral estates, both of which are protected in the state’s constitution. The mineral estate is considered “dominant,” which means, in cases where surface and mineral rights are split between two owners, the mineral owner is allowed to use the surface “reasonably” as needed for mineral exploration, development and production.
Critics of the proposed ban argue that a blanket forbidding of drilling within the municipality would infringe on mineral owners’ right to develop those resources.
“It’s a high-stakes game. This issue is going to be decided in one of two places: the statehouse or the courthouse,” Mayor Watts told the Texas Tribune. Watts did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera by publication.
Barry Smitherman, Chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, wrote to the Denton City Council saying that the ban would “increase America’s dependence” on foreign oil and natural gas.
But years of failed attempts to reign in drilling through stricter regulations on where it can take place within city limits caused the city’s residents to consider an all-out ban. In order to put forth a ballot initiative, anti-fracking residents needed to gather 571 signatures. Instead, the petition, organized by local anti-fracking group Denton Drilling Awareness Group, gathered nearly 2,000.
Wilson said that during the meeting, industry voices “insulted residents’ intelligence” by saying there had never been a case of water contamination and speaking about how highly regulated the fracking industry is — claims Wilson said both she and other Denton residents found “ridiculous.”
“No one in Texas was against fracking when it started. All this opposition is because industry cannot and will not follow the rules,” Wilson said. “They promised to do it right, but I’ve come to know after a decade of this that they are not capable of doing it right. And that’s why they are experiencing a backlash. It’s not because we are scared or stupid, it’s because of our direct experience.”
Devon Energy Corporation, active for years in Denton, declined to comment, deferring to trade organizations. The trade organizations representing local industry interests were also not available for comment at time of publication.