Denton Residents Propose Fracking Ban

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BarnettShaleDrilling-9323
Photo by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)/Wikimedia
Barnett Shale drilling rig near Alvarado, TX.

A group of Denton residents launched an effort Tuesday to outlaw fracking within the city.

If the Denton Drilling Awareness Group succeeds in getting the ban on the ballot and if Dentonites pass the measure in November, Denton will become the first city in Texas to make fracking illegal. Cities in other states have already passed similar laws, but Denton would be the first with existing fracking permits to do so.

The possibility of a city in Texas—a state that accounts for one-third of U.S. natural gas production—making it illegal to frack is sure to rattle the industry. Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December when it adopted prohibitive setback requirements for natural gas wells, but it still didn’t outright make fracking illegal. And Dallas isn’t Denton.

Denton sits atop the part of the Barnett Shale formation that’s richest in natural gas. The county is the fourth-highest producing within the Barnett Shale. It has 275 active gas wells within its city limits (Dallas didn’t have a single active gas well within city limits when it passed the de facto ban) and another 212 wells in the extraterritorial jurisdiction within five miles of city limits.

Nineteen operators own those gas wells. EagleRidge Energy, whose wells have been at the center of the debate between residents and city government, owns at least 107 active wells. The Observer contacted Mark Grawe, the chief operating officer and executive vice president at EagleRidge, but he refused to comment on the proposed ban. Asked how many gas wells EagleRidge operates in and around Denton, he said “in the hundreds,” and asked what percentage of its natural gas production is concentrated in the city, he only volunteered “a majority.”

Denton Drilling Awareness Group member Cathy McMullen moved to Denton when natural gas wells started springing up around her home in Decatur. She and her husband found homes for their farm animals and relocated to Denton with their rescue dogs, thinking they’d escaped drilling. But soon, a drilling rig went up 1,500 feet from their house.

“We were shocked because we’re in town, we’re next to a hospital and next to a city park so we thought they’ll never drill here,” she says. “Then they started drilling here and I told my husband, ‘That is my line in the sand. I’m not going anymore, we’re just fighting it.’”

Dentonites who support the fracking ban don’t expect it will be an easy battle, but they say they had no choice but to resort to a voter-adopted ban. Sharon Wilson, who has been organizing in Denton for five years, says residents have been trying to get city government to pass reasonable restrictions on natural gas drilling for years. The City Council passed a revised gas drilling ordinance last year, but residents were unsatisfied because it left out key protections such as prohibiting open pits, compressor stations, flaring and other measures they requested.

The ordinance also provides an important loophole. Energy companies can’t put new drills within 1,200 feet of homes, but that setback doesn’t apply to developers building new homes. Developers can build near existing gas wells, which energy companies can then return to redevelop, or re-frack. That’s what happened in a Denton neighborhood recently, where EagleRidge Energy bought existing gas wells and began operating them even though they are only 250 feet away from homes. In that case, the developer pledged to disclose the gas well locations to future homebuyers, but in general that isn’t required.

“The last straw was when they decided to allow fracking so close to the Vintage neighborhood,” Wilson says. “It’s been a horrible, horrible experience for these people … We had no choice, we were backed into a corner and the only way to protect families and future generations was to try to get it banned.”

The group has to collect 571 signatures in 180 days to get the ordinance change on the ballot. Wilson and McMullen are confident they can get the signatures easily because so many residents have complained about emissions, noise pollution and dropping property values, but whether a majority of voters decides to back the measure is another matter.

If they are able to muster enough support, the ordinance could still face legal challenges. In Dallas, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city after it passed the de facto ban, and in Colorado, the state joined oil and gas groups in suing the city of Longmont for its voter-adopted fracking ban. In Denton, the City Council can amend or repeal the ordinance even after it’s passed.

“And then we’d have to do the process all over again, which we’ve already decided we would,” McMullen says. “If we have to do this process 50 times we will do it.”

It’s only the beginning of a long battle for many of the cities attempting to ban or significantly restrict urban fracking, but what happens in Texas in the coming months (or years) will likely have an impact beyond the state’s borders.

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.

  • Adam Briggle

    Thanks for the thoughtful coverage of this issue.

  • http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/ WCGasette

    Technically, land owned by the City of Dallas does have a gas well in production (it shows production through Oct. 2012) on land they leased to Trinity East (also known as Expro Engineering and Keystone Exploration). It’s a long story at the Dallas/Irving border. Not sure if any royalty payments have ever been received by Dallas. This well showed a whopping production of 10 MCF in Oct. 2012 (the last month that shows production on the RRC web site) and an overall total of 432,010 MCF for the 177 Acres out of 633 Acres since February 2010.

    Thank you for this detailed story about a serious issue that deserves all the details.

  • Tim Ruggiero

    I’m going to help DAG get the required number of signatures. Whatever it takes. Denton’s leadership has failed miserably on this issue, and they’ve made it quite clear they simply do not care. It was quite clear to me that during a city council meeting the gas well administrator was giving bad information to the mayor and council, and some of the council members were still asking basic questions about drilling and related processes-and asking these elementary questions after 4 years, more than $100,000 in outside consultation fees and the creation of a drilling task force.

    • cathy mcmullen

      Valeri, I have been to Cuero in the Eagle Ford and it is unbelievable what is happening there. We thought about moving to South Texas but the drilling there is even more brutal than it is here in the Barnett. This won’t be easy but support like yours it let’s us know it is a battle worth fighting.

  • Cathy McMullen

    Tim your support will be invaluable. It is hard to believe it has come to this isn’t it?
    The city and gas production companies have no one to blame but themselves.
    Let’s not forget the $300,000 the City of Denton also paid to Terry Morgan and Associates for legal assistance with the development of their drilling ordinances.

  • Valerie Haese

    Just wanted to say thank you to Cathy and the members of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group for your courage and conscience in taking on this battle. For doing the right thing. I’d like to gratefully acknowledge that your efforts will be reaching out to other areas not only in TX but in the rest of the nation as well. Thanks again from south Texas.

  • Chuck Norton

    When the Denton city council voted to permit gas well drilling just across from McKenna Park and within a few hundred yards of the Presbyterian Hospital medical complex, the Denton County MHMR Center, and a neighborhood, it became painfully obvious that the city “leaders” cared more about avoiding a lawsuit by the applicant for the drilling permit (as the city attorneys warned them in dire tones would surely happen if they dared to say “no”) than they did about the public health and safety concerns raised by citizens and residents. Since then, the membership of the city council has changed and some weak restrictions on gas well drilling and operation have been adopted, but the Mark Burroughs administration has not been a profile in courage in standing up for the safety of Denton against the natural gas industry, so it’s great news to see this citizens’ initiative to put the question into the hands of the voters, who, let’s hope, are not so easily cowed into submission as their “representatives”.

  • Cathy McMullen

    Ed Ireland from BSEEC, a paid industry PR group, has stated the ban on hydraulic fracturing would be illegal in Denton Texas but that is not true:

    Gas industry representatives have asserted that the proposed ordinance is preempted by state law, meaning the City cannot regulate hydraulic fracturing. Is that true?

    No. Effective January 1, 2014, the State of Texas has adopted new rules for hydraulic fracturing in Texas. Those rules are found in the Texas Administrative Code; however, the new rules do not preempt municipal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. First, there is no doctrine of implied preemption under state law (meaning that just because the State enacts legislation does not imply that a city is powerless to address the issue) and second, for any municipal regulation to be preempted by state law, the State Legislature must do so “with unmistakable clarity.” There is nothing in the new State rules that specifically preempts the City from adopting the ordinance as proposed.