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.