Texas-sized Dose of Hypocrisy Served Up To Local Governments Statewide in an Effort to Overturn Denton's Fracking Ban


On March 24, the Texas House of Representatives’ Energy Resources Committee passed a bill that would rescind the fracking ban in Denton and other efforts by local Texas municipalities to protect themselves from the oil and gas industry. Once language in the bill is finalized, which could happen today, the legislation will make its way to the full Texas Senate for a vote. 

“The oil and gas industry are getting what they always wanted – to get these pesky cities out of the way. They’re utilizing the lack of diligence and gullibility of state government – who are bought and paid for by industry, by using the Denton fracking ban to get what they want,” Denton Councilman Kevin Roden told DeSmogBlog. 

“It is a political cliché to take advantage of a good crisis. And the fracking ban gave them a good crisis.” Roden said.

Instead of fighting the ban in the courts, industry made a preemptive move to eliminate local ordinances altogether by pushing representatives to pass laws against ordinances in their way. 

Vantage Fort Worth Energy site in Arlington, Texas. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

On March 23, hundreds turned up to speak out against State Rep. Drew Darby‘s (R – San Angelo) proposed House Bill 40 at a hearing in Austin that lasted more than eight hours. A vote was not taken on HB40 then. However, the next day, the Texas Senate Natural Resources & Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to approve SB 1165, a similar bill that would assert the state’s preemptive right to regulate oil and gas development. 

Senate Bill 1165 is pretty much the same as HB40, according to Kathy McMullen, head of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. “It is a common tactic to submit two bills that are nearly identical in hopes one of them goes through, and that is what happened,” McMullen told DeSmogBlog. “The day following the marathon hearing, citizens and local politicians had to go home, but industry stayed and got what it wanted,” McMullen said. 

Cathy McMullen, founder of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, at a meeting in Denton, Texas. © 2014 Julie Dermansky

If passed and ultimately signed, the bill would make it Texas state policy to “fully and effectively exploit oil and gas resources,” and limit local restrictions to whatever industry considers “commercially reasonable.” Local governments will no longer be able to “enforce an ordinance or other measure, or an amendment or revision of an existing ordinance or other measure that bans, limits, or otherwise regulates an oil and gas operation within its boundaries or extraterritorial jurisdiction.”

“This bill would shift the standard to the operator’s interests by requiring validity to be determined by a test of what is commercially reasonable. So, the question shifts from, ‘Is this reasonable in terms of protecting the community?’ to ‘Is this reasonable in terms of allowing operators to fully exploit minerals?’” Adam Briggle, co-founder of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, told DeSmogBlog. 

“For over a decade, more than 300 cities have come up with their own ordinances to do things how they see fit, a right the Texas constitution gives them,” McMullen said. “Now they are all on the chopping block, since the bill gives industry and the state the power to decide what is commercially reasonable.”

The bill would be retroactive, making it impossible to enforce all the ordinances created in the last decade in more than 300 cities, according to the Texas Municipal League.

If the Senate passes the bill, “ten years of work I have done has gone down the drain,” Sharon Wilson, Earthworks’ Gulf Regional Organizer and an outspoken anti-fracking activist, told DeSmogBlog. She began helping local groups create ordinances that help keep their cities livable after she moved away from an area with heavy drilling herself. 

Sharon Wilson, Earthwork’s Gulf Regional Organizer, operating a FLIR camera in Denton, Texas. © 2014 Julie Dermansky

On the same night the bill was debated, new ordinances in Mansfield, Texas, were approved. Members of the Mansfield Gas Well Drilling Awareness Group, a local grassroots organization, did not get the 1,500-foot setback for keeping drilling rigs away from homes that they wanted, but they did get stricter rules to protect air quality and safety in general.

Lance Irwin, a founding member of the Mansfield Group, said this new bill would undo all the work they just did to get the little bit of an improvement they got. “If the state is going to come in and undo everything the municipalities have been fighting for, this is going to be a war,” he told DeSmogBlog.

Lance Irwin at the location on Debbie Lane in Mansfield that Edge Resources plans to further develop. ©2015 Julie Dermansky

Mansfield’s city council left its setback ordinance at 600 feet, the same distance set in Fort Worth and Arlington, two cities in the Barnett Shale where fracking took hold at the start of the boom. However, there are exceptions to a 600-foot set back rule in certain cases, including situations where the well existed before the ordinance was enacted.

Dallas, Flower Mound, Southlake, and Denton have more sizable setback ordinances greater than 600 feet, none of which will stand if the bill passes. 

The ordinances in Fort Worth and Arlington were praised by committee members at the hearing. Fort Worth “has done this right. They have done this consistently,” Rep Darby, said. “A lot of people say we should adopt [Fort Worth’s] ordinance, and say that is the best practices. You are to be congratulated for that.” 

The Committee asked Fort Worth representatives to help them rewrite the bill to mirror that city’s ordinances. 

“Arlington’s ordinance does not protect public health,” Ranjana Bhandari, one of the co-founders of Livable Arlington, a grassroots group with a mission to protect the community from the fracking industry, told DeSmogBlog.

“New peer-reviewed research shows the serious health effects of living close to drilling and fracking. Our ordinance needs to be strengthened in light of this new information. We need much bigger setbacks, better continuous monitoring of emissions for starters, and tough penalties for violators. We also now have a few years of lived experience and anecdotal information from residents who live close to fracking, and we need to pay attention to it. Our ordinance cannot become the state’s model for regulation of oil and gas. It has failed us,” Bhandari said.

Kyev Tatum, a pastor and civil rights activist from Fort Worth, doesn’t think his city is a model to go by either.

“Fort Worth emissions are horrible,” he told DeSmogBlog. “You cannot allow 3,000 natural gas wells to be drilled inside an inner city area and not expect it to have an environmental, economical, and physical impact. Fracking is causing more sickness. We have the highest asthma rate and the highest infant mortality rate in the state,” Tatum said.

Tatum took part in the march celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the civil rights movement in Selma. 

“This is the same mess, different address. Different time, same tactics. We took a giant step forward in the 1960s, but now, 50 years later, we have taken a giant step back,” Tatum said.

Pastor Kyev Tatum, an anti fracking and civil rights activist next to a fracking site in Fort Worth, Texas. © 2015 Julie Dermanky

The hypocrisy of what is happening in Austin struck many, including Denton Councilman Kevin Roden. 

“The whole tone is very anti-city. They are against the plastic bag ordinance, the tree ordinance, anti-smoking, texting while driving ordinances, too. Nationally, it is a conservative principle to fight for local control, yet this Republican-led coalition is doing the opposite,” Roden said. 

“If you can’t convince Texas citizens this whole energy revolution on the back of fracking is a great thing, that is a problem for the whole county,” Roden pointed out. “It is unclear how it will play out,” he added. “Amendments could be brought to the floor or a middle ground could be found, but I don’t feel too optimistic, based on the rhetoric I heard from the committees up to this point.”

Denton Councilman Kevin Roden at a Cafe in Denton, Texas. © 2014 Julie Dermanky 

Denton’s attorneys will be making suggestions, along with the mayor, as well as attorneys representing cities across Texas. 

Pastor Tatum hopes those in Denton don’t feel defeated. “Now is the time to discourage the governor and the senators from signing the bill, not to give up. And if it doesn’t work, it will be time to challenge the law,” he said.

The Denton Drilling Awareness Group plans to do just that.

“We have to call our representative and senators, and tell then not to vote for the bills,” McMullen said. “If this bill works in Texas, other states will try this against their constituents who want stronger gas ordinances, like Colorado and Wyoming.”

Mailie Bush, a Denton resident and mother of two and a member of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, was offended that Austin thinks it knows more than the local municipalities do.

“They are trying to take away control from us to make our own decisions. They don’t know what it is like to live this close to oil and gas development. Maybe if they spent some time here they would see why we needed to pass the ban,” she told DeSmogBlog. 

“It is discouraging to see everything you worked for to protect your family is going down the tubes. However it also motivates; this cannot stand. It energizes me and makes me ask, what can I do now-what do I have to do to get them to listen to me,” Bush said.

The Bush family stand behind a sign supporting a fracking ban on their lawn in Denton, Texas. © 2014 Julie Dermansky

Wilson, who began her testimony against the bill in Austin by stating that she wished she had worn her waders to the hearing, not believing what she was listening to, said:

“I don’t know what exactly our next steps are going to be, but I know we are going to have a whole lot more people taking those steps with us. And most of them are going to be Republicans.”

Roden expressed similar sentiments:

“I don’t think Austin knows how much it has made the problem worse. There is going to be a huge political backlash. The more extreme they get the more awakened the average citizen will get and see this is crazy.” 

Image credit: Fracking site near homes in Denton, Texas. © 2014 Julie Dermansky

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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