Denton City Council Leaves Fracking Ban Decision to Voters

Fracking near homes in Denton, TX.
Fracking near homes in Denton, TX.

Update 7:45am: Denton voters will decide the fate of fracking in their city come November after the City Council voted against the fracking ban this morning shortly before 3 a.m.

The Council seemed partial to the ban supporters during the hearing, which lasted eight hours, but in the end no one seconded Councilman Kevin Roden’s motion to pass the ban. The members voted 5-2 for a motion to deny passing the ban, so the initiative will now be on the November ballot. Activists had predicted their City Council would not adopt the citizen-led initiative, but the news was still disappointing and folks took to Twitter to say that industry won once again in Texas. We’ll be watching this come November, so stay tuned.

Update 12:42am: Word is there are more than 100 speakers signed up at this point, and we’ve heard from about 80 of them so far. They’re mostly Denton residents who are in favor of changing the city’s drilling ordinance to outlaw fracking; industry representatives appear to be gone for the night.

The testimony is starting to get a little repetitive and Council members are asking less questions. One man with Frack Free Denton called out several Council members, who he says promised to vote for the fracking ban if it went to Council during their respective campaigns. Councilman Greg Johnson clarified that he had promised to support the ban if that’s what Denton residents voted for, but none of the others commented. Smitherman’s letter to Council suggesting Russia’s involvement in the petition has provided ample fodder for jokes throughout the night.

Update 10:04pm: The night began with a string of folks opposed to passing the fracking ban in Denton, and about one-third of the speakers who were registered at the beginning of the hearing have now spoken. We’ve heard from two elected officials and a slew of industry reps, as well as some Denton residents. The City Council has surprised ban supporters by grilling industry representatives on inflated numbers regarding the economic benefits of fracking in Denton, as well as dismissing claims of easy solutions.

The Council is frustrated by the lack of inspection of natural gas wells and insufficient enforcement of regulations that are supposed to ensure companies practice “safe” fracking. At one point, Council Member Jim Engelbrecht asked an industry representative to “do a little ass-kicking” to help regulate fracking and another council member suggested Engelbrecht needed some chocolate. (He later announced he had secured the chocolate.)

Various council members have at different times throughout the night acknowledged the city’s shortcomings in creating an adequate gas drilling ordinance and protecting residents. Denton Mayor Chris Watts—who has been far more sympathetic to ban supporters than Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was in a similar City Council public hearing in Dallas in December—expressed the Council’s frustration that it had “come to this.”

Original: The Denton City Council will consider a proposed ban on fracking tonight, after a group of citizens gathered enough signatures to force a vote. The council will likely kick the decision to voters in November, but that isn’t deterring participation in the public hearing tonight. City officials expect record crowds and have hired additional police officers as security. If the citizen-led initiative eventually passes, Denton will be the first Texas city to impose an outright ban on fracking, though Dallas and Flower Mound have imposed strict setback requirements that have effectively ended fracking in their jurisdictions.

The decision is being closely watched because of its precedent-setting potential. If a city in drilling-friendly Texas—which accounts for one-third of the country’s total natural gas production—can ban fracking, then a city in any other state can do the same. That strikes fear into the hearts of oil and gas producers and heartens environmental activists. Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale and currently has 275 active gas wells within city limits (and an additional 212 wells in its extraterritorial jurisdiction).

In anticipation of tonight’s vote, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman sent the Denton City Council a letter denouncing the ban. In the four-page letter, Smitherman suggests that Russia may be behind the effort, pointing to reports of Russia “secretly working with environmental groups in Europe.” In an editorial in the Denton Record-Chronicle, the president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association blamed East and West Coast activists “seeking to slow responsible hydrocarbon development through fear” for the petition.

North Texas drilling-reform activist Sharon Wilson, who helped organize the petition drive, joked that she hasn’t received her check from Russia yet. She said the suggestions of outside influence are insulting to Texans.

“We’re being influenced by our direct experience of living next to fracking,” Wilson said. “The problem that is terrifying industry is that Texans know fracking better than anybody, so if we can’t live with it, nobody is going to be able to live with it.”

If Denton outlaws fracking, it’s possible that at least some of the 19 companies active in the city will sue. After Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city for more than $30 million. The case is ongoing, but opponents point to a protracted legal battle as one of many potentially negative consequences Denton could face if it adopts the ban.

According to a study commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce released Monday, Denton will lose more than $250 million in economic activity as well as more than 2,000 jobs and $5.1 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years if the city outlaws fracking. The report was conducted by Waco-based Perryman Group, a firm frequently hired by business interests to make their case.

The hearing is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. As of 5:30, at least 79 people had registered to speak. The city expects that upwards of 500 people will attend, so the vote will likely take place well past midnight. We’ll be following via livestream, so stay tuned for updates.

Follow @pmozkeda for updates tonight. 

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Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.

Published at 5:54 pm CST
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