Denton, Texas, Latest Hotspot in Fight Over Municipal Fracking

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With a population of 120,000, Denton, Texas, has become the latest battleground over whether towns and communities can control drilling inside their borders. The fact that it has happened in the heart of the Barnett Shale -- a bedrock of Texas gas production -- has grabbed headlines and attention around the nation. The latest flare up has even had gasoline thrown on the fire, when a senior official with the American Petroleum Institute said it is "irresponsible" to allow voters to decide drilling or fracking issues in their communities. The council voted 5-2 against an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing inside their community -- but voted unanimously to put it on the November ballot and let the town's 120,000 voters decide. If voters approve the ban on Nov. 4, Denton will have become the first Texas city to forbid fracking. Recently, the New York state Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled that municipalities have the right through local zoning rules to ban fracking inside their borders (NGW Jul.7'14). In Colorado, efforts continue to give the state's 271 cities a greater say in whether or not drilling can be done inside their town (related). Drilling in Denton is not new -- E&P activity has been inside the city for more than a decade -- and according to city records, there are 278 wells in the city. After getting a petition calling for an end to fracking, city officials in May called for a moratorium on new fracking permits -- but that temporary ban ends in September. The city passed an ordinance setting a 1,200-foot buffer zone between a well and homes -- but many companies were grandfathered in because they had their drilling sites before any homes were built. Because of that, Dallas-based Eagle Ridge Energy was able to drill wells as close as 187 feet from some homes. The fact that a Texas town is following in the footsteps of communities in Ohio, Colorado and New York to ban fracking inside their city limits prompted Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry T. Smitherman to send a four-page letter attacking the proposal . "A ban on hydraulic fracturing of oil and natural gas wells within the city limits of Denton is essentially a ban on drilling," Smitherman wrote, adding that any attempt at banning fracking is "misguided." Smitherman pointed out that in 2005, before the widespread use of fracking, Texas was producing about 950,000 barrels of oil per day. Today, the Lone Star State is producing more than 2.1 million b/d. He also warned that Denton could create a domino effect if the ban is enacted. "If other cities were to follow your lead, then we could potentially, one day, see a ban on drilling within all cities in Texas," Smitherman wrote. He added, "If that were to happen, then I believe that our country, our state, its citizens and school children would be severely harmed." He may have cause for concern. According to minutes of the Denton council meeting, 59 of the 110 speakers supported the ban and another 161 out of 500 people who attended the meeting signed cards supporting it. The issue is so important, according to API Vice President Louis Finkel, voters should not be allowed to decide the issue -- no matter what state they are in. In an article published in The Hill, Finkel was quoted as saying, "I think these are complicated, difficult issues, and trying to deal with them through means of political campaigns is irresponsible. That is why we have a regulatory process, that is why we have elected officials." He said the industry needs to provide voters, and consumers, in areas where measures are on the ballot with the right information needed to make the right choice. The pushback against drilling by a growing number of communities is a natural byproduct of the way the energy industry has conducted itself, according to a Greenpeace official. "It's the oil and gas industry's irresponsible drilling practices that are pushing so many communities to pursue bans against fracking," Greenpeace spokesman Joe Smyth told Natural Gas Week. "While it's no surprise that the American Petroleum Institute is putting oil and gas industry profits over our country's democratic process, many cities and towns are standing up for their rights to safe communities, clean air and clean water -- despite the industry threats and bullying." If on Nov. 4, Denton voters approve their ban, they can expect a major legal attack, according to former Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips. In a statement posted on the Texas Oil and Gas Association's website, Phillips said, "Based on my experience and knowledge of Texas law, I believe Denton’s proposed ordinance to ban hydraulic fracturing is unconstitutional. Under the Texas Constitution, I do not believe that a municipality may ban all oil and gas drilling within its borders." He said the Denton law, if passed, will "lead to years of costly litigation that will likely result in substantial monetary judgments against the city." That legal fight will be paid for by the citizens of Denton, he added. City officials said they are writing the ordinance proposal now to be put on the November ballots. John A. Sullivan, Houston

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