Railroaded by the Railroad Commission in Denton

A parade in favor of Denton's fracking ban
Garrett Graham
A parade in favor of Denton's fracking ban

The exhilaration my neighbors and I felt on election night after Denton’s referendum to ban fracking passed by an overwhelming majority lasted about 12 hours or so. But by the next morning Denton was under assault—not only from the oil and gas industry, but from Austin bureaucrats and politicians.

The city was slammed with lawsuits from the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office, now headed by George Prescott Bush. In true “Bush Doctrine” fashion, the lawsuits seek the preemption of Denton’s democratic process, attempting to halt the ban’s enforcement before it began.

This backlash from the oil and gas industry and their bought-and-paid-for legislators in Austin was more than anticipated by those of us who have struggled against fracking in Denton for more than five years. On election night, moments after the results were announced, the only words that the president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, Cathy McMullen, could muster were: “Bring it.”

We’re certainly not naïve about what it means to rebuff fracking in the shale where the technique was pioneered. But it’s the response from the Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick that seems to have struck a raw nerve here in Denton.

Craddick told The Dallas Morning News in early November that she would continue issuing drilling permits to the industry for fracking operations in our city. “I believe it’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” she told the Morning News. Her comment was not only a reactionary and obstinate slap in the face, but revealed the lengths to which the Railroad Commission will go to protect the interests of the very industry it regulates.

Craddick’s comments make little sense to Denton residents who’ve watched city council members use their home-rule authority to approve various drilling permits over the years. Indeed, it was the issuance of special use permits, like the one granted to Range Resources in 2009 to drill across the street from a public park and a hospital, that set off the movement against fracking in Denton.

Adding further insult to injury, the Denton Record-Chronicle published an op-ed from Craddick in November that attempted to explain how we had been manipulated into our beliefs by unnamed groups:

Since hydraulic fracturing became a widely used practice in Texas, it has been plagued by a cloud of misinformation, mainly due to groups more interested in scaring people than actually understanding the complex science of minerals extraction.

In the op-ed, she implores Denton residents to “work together” with the Railroad Commission to “find solutions” even after publicly stating she would continue to issue permits for fracking operations in Denton.

Craddick’s op-ed is not just patronizing, it is myopic, revealing how little she understands about the regulatory situation that brought Denton to this point. Since Range Resources’ McKenna Park gas well was drilled in 2009, residents and city staff have tried every single institutional avenue available to regulate fracking in Denton.

The battle over the McKenna Park gas well prompted the city to review its entire drilling ordinance in 2009, and despite an industry-stacked gas drilling task force, which vetted the proposed changes to Denton’s drilling ordinance, the community was able to pressure the City Council to approve a stronger set of new rules, including a 1,200-foot setback requirement.

But after the new rules were passed, the gas companies found a loophole, arguing that their permits to frack pre-existing gas wells were grandfathered under the old rules. This is the history that Craddick doesn’t understand; it’s what led voters in Denton to pass the frack ban in a landslide.

There’s something else that Craddick’s comments fail to address: her potential conflicts of interest. Before she was elected to the Railroad Commission, Craddick lobbied for oil and gas interests and represented oil and gas clients as an attorney. According to LittleSis, a research arm of the Public Accountability Initiative, Craddick reported $50,000 in personal royalties from the oil and gas industry in her 2012 financial disclosure form, including one royalty payment of $25,000 from Kinder Morgan, which is active in Denton County.

Craddick’s potential conflicts of interest are part of a deep-rooted problem with the Railroad Commission. Industry ties and monied influence are “business as usual” for the agency. So much so that in 2010 the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews state agencies for efficiency, recommended that the Railroad Commission be abolished and replaced with a new entity, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Under the sunset plan, the Oil and Gas Commission would be run by a part-time five member board appointed by the governor.

The sunset commission also found that the Railroad Commission is the only Texas regulatory agency overseen by elected officials who overwhelmingly rely on campaign contributions from the industries it oversees. No wonder, then, that the Railroad Commission pursued action on enforcement in only a tiny percentage of the thousands of violations identified each year.

Denton and other home-rule cities provide a clear example of why municipalities are perfectly capable of handling many regulatory tasks on their own. Cities following Denton’s lead in confronting fracking are putting in place restrictions that the Railroad Commission either is unwilling or unable to enact.

The Railroad Commission has created many enemies, both on the right and the left, with its failure to protect citizens directly impacted by the oil and gas industry. It’s now clear that the Railroad Commission is willing to abandon and overrule the democratic decision of a community it is meant to protect. But in doing so, it’s helping to build a movement of people who can put pressure on legislators to abolish the Railroad Commission, as the sunset commission recommended. Many Dentonites are planning to make this case to our legislators in January.

Published at 8:15 am CST
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