Natural Gas Week

Fracking Ban Approved by Voters in Texas City Under Legal Attack – November 10, 2014

Denton, Texas, is regarded as the town where the energy renaissance in the oil and natural gas industry began as operators honed their skills with hydraulic fracturing techniques.

And, last week, voters in Denton passed a ballot measure banning any new fracking in their community — which already boasts 275 fracked wells, two universities and a population of about 123,000.

About 58% of the 25,000 voters who took part in last Tuesday’s election voted in favor of the ban.

The ban was cheered by green groups and immediately attacked by industry lobbyists and politicians.

Denton Mayor Chris Watts said any pre-existing permits to frack wells within city limits will remain valid, but that the city will enforce the ban going forward.

In a written statement, he said, “The City Council is committed to defending the ordinance and will exercise the legal remedies that are available to use, should the ordinance be challenged.

The ban was quickly challenged with a legal attack by the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA) while industry leaders and politicians verbally attacked the vote — with Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter saying that the very renaissance started in Denton may be in jeopardy because of the ban.

On the day after the election, the TXOGA asked the Denton County District Court to block the measure — saying it violates the state constitution.

Thomas R. Phillips, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas and a partner with Baker Botts, which represents the association, said, “While home-rule cities like Denton may certainly regulate some aspects of exploration and drilling, TXOGA does not believe that they may enact ordinances that outlaw conduct, like hydraulic fracturing, that has been approved and regulated by state agencies such as the Railroad Commission or The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”

The push to ban fracking began a year ago when Frack Free Denton submitted a petition with enough votes to force the City Council to bring it up for a vote. The council voted down the measure, but because there were enough signatures on the petition, it was placed on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The ensuing PR battle saw opponents to the ban spend more than $700,000 against it — or more than $6 per person in the town. The green groups supporting the ban spent considerably less — being outspent by their energy opponents on a scale of about 10-to-1 (NGW Jul.21’14).

Denton resident Sharon Wilson, the Texas organizer for the Washington, DC-based green group EarthWorks, said the fight wasn’t a David vs. Goliath challenge, but more like a David vs. Godzilla brawl.

In a statement to Natural Gas Week, the executive board of Frack Free Denton said they expected the legal challenge to the vote. They blasted the energy industry, saying, “Industry could have taken this moment to address why the ban was passed. Instead they’re going to try to squash it. If justice prevails, and we think it will, they will lose.”

Breitling Energy Chief Executive Chris Faulkner was more pointed in his comments, saying the Denton vote endangers the town’s very future.

“The citizens of Denton, Texas have voted themselves into what will most definitely end up as the legal equivalent of a field of quicksand,” Faulkner told NGW. “The ground-rumbling they will hear won’t be earthquakes, but the stampede of lawyers running to the area to join in the plethora of lawsuits

“The real losers here are the citizens of Denton who had the potential to make comfortable lives for themselves and their children via mineral rights, and now face a future of nothing on their land but tumbleweeds and crickets.”

No hearing date has been set by the Denton district court, but many court-watchers expect it to be very soon and all agreed, no matter what the ruling, the legal fight over Denton’s ban is far from over.

Similar bans were on ballots in California and Ohio and met with mixed results. Bans against fracking and steam injection in California were passed in San Benito and Mendocino Counties and defeated in Santa Barbara County. In Ohio, voters in the city of Athens approved a ban while similar measures were defeated in the communities of Gates Mills, Kent and Youngstown.

John A. Sullivan, Houston