Anti-fracking groups won a major victory on Tuesday, when residents of Denton, Texas passed a fracking ban by a large margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.
Fracking became a source of tension in Denton, a city of 124,000 that’s about 35 miles northwest of Dallas, as natural gas companies tapping the Barnett Shale installed nearly 300 wells in recent years. Some of those wells were within a few hundred feet of new subdivisions, creating noise and air pollution that prompted irritated residents to organize the ballot initiative against drilling within the city.
Frack Free Denton organized residents around concerns that fracking consumes 4 to 8 million gallons of freshwater per well and threatens to pollute drinking water. The group also slammed the practice as being “a drag on economic development,” a relatively new argument against the industry, which often touts the jobs it creates. (The opposition to the ban, supported by gas money, organized under the name Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy.)
Frack Free Denton also cited high asthma rates as another reason to push back against drilling, an argument that may have resonated in a city with a relatively young and educated population. Denton is home to the University of North Texas, Texas Women’s University and major hospitals.
Natural gas companies are expected to challenge the ban, because the natural gas industry believes the state gives the ultimate say over mineral rights to the Texas Railroad Commission.
“It is unfortunate that many Denton voters were misled into believing that Denton could violate the Texas Constitution by superseding the [Texas] Railroad Commission’s regulatory authority over oil and gas drilling and illegally take private property in the form of mineral rights,” Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, told the industry publication, NGI’s Shale Daily.
The article in the Shale Daily was headlined: “Denton, TX, Votes Fracking Out, Lawsuits In.”
Fracking opponents, however, argue that the public has an overriding right to a safe environment.
When it was clear that the initiative would pass Tuesday night, Denton Mayor Chris Watts issued a statement that the city would defend the new law.
“As I have stated numerous times, the democratic process is alive and well in Denton. Hydraulic fracturing, as determined by our citizens, will be prohibited in the Denton city limits. The City Council is committed to defending the ordinance and will exercise the legal remedies that are available to us should the ordinance be challenged. The City Council is committed to continuing the review of our gas well ordinance to ensure the utmost health, safety, and welfare of our residents, and we will continue to work with industry representatives to ensure full compliance with our gas well drilling ordinance.”
The mayor’s statement carried significance, not just because of the expected challenge from natural gas companies, but because the City Council had previously voted against a ban when citizens had appealed for one.
Frack Free Denton’s President Cathy McMullen also put those who would challenge the ban on notice in her statement on the vote on the group’s blog.
“We know the oil and gas industry is going to try to use our own state government against us by directing its paid flunkies to overturn the ban in the legislature.
To them I say, if you vote to overturn this ban, never again say you’re against big government
Because politicians didn’t pass this ban.
This ban is the voice of the citizens of Denton speaking directly to the fracking industry, and local, state and national government: WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH.
So try to overturn it if you will. But know that if you do, you are on the side of corporate interests and against the people.
Because this isn’t a ban on fracking everywhere.
If YOU want fracking in YOUR COMMUNITY, fine! Keep it.
But in Denton, we don’t.”
Earthworks, an environmental group that supported Denton citizens seeking a ban, added its own fighting words, declaring this victory in Texas to be symbolic and predicted it would fire up citizens elsewhere.
While Denton is the first Texas city to outright ban fracking, in 2013, Dallas enacted strict guidelines for fracking, requiring a 1,500 foot setback for wells from homes, schools and churches. The ordinance makes it difficult to site wells in the densely populated city, though it would allow fracking in some park areas if drillers could meet the requirements of the ordinance.
Dozens of smaller cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California and a few other states where oil and gas companies have identified shale gas reserves also have taken steps to keep hydraulic fracturing away from neighborhoods. (Food and Water Watch maintains a list of those cities.)
On Tuesday, Athens, Ohio, joined those cities with fracking restrictions, passing by a huge margin a “bill of rights” that protecting property owners from the state granting well drilling authority to corporations over their objections.