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October 9, 2014

In Texas, a Fight Over Fracking

IPI expert referenced: Tom Giovanetti | In The News | Media Hit
  The New York Times
 

By CLIFFORD KRAUSS

DENTON, Tex. -- Many Texans have long held the oil and gas industry as dear to their hearts as a prairie range full of feeding cattle. Now suddenly that love is being tested here in a local election, where a grass-roots campaign against gas producers has pushed the industry into a corner.

The battle is over a proposed city ban on hydraulic fracturing -- the technique of blasting shale rock with water, sand and chemicals to dislodge oil and gas, often called fracking -- in a referendum on Nov. 4. No city in Texas has ever come close to passing such a measure.

But in this college town of 130,000 outside Dallas, the producers find themselves in an uphill battle against a diverse band of doorbell ringers and lawn-sign distributors who are working day and night.

The debate in Denton echoes themes heard in communities around the country, pitting economic arguments like job creation and school funding against quality-of-life and environmental concerns like noise, traffic, fumes and fears that fracking might endanger local water supplies.

The opponents are being led by a home care nurse, who has already moved once to get out of the way of local drilling, and a young philosophy professor. Their committee treasurer is a jazz drummer.

Their tactics are a mix of the traditional and the unorthodox. One soapbox derby enthusiast is building a ''fracking coffin racer'' to display at an upcoming festival. Other fracking foes are planning a performance of ''frack free puppeteers'' at a get-out-the-vote event.

Still others are meticulously outlining canvassing maps for hundreds of volunteers to distribute leaflets that claim that fracking pollutes neighborhoods with ''cancer-causing benzene and other chemicals that cause headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and breathing difficulties.''

The local pro-fracking forces, financed largely but quietly by local gas producers, are crying foul, suggesting their opponents are peddling fear. They are fighting back with billboards, newspaper advertisements and fliers, illustrated by smiling school children, that say the ban ''will hurt our schools" by shrinking tax revenue.

After all, fracking supporters say, Denton sits squarely in the middle of one of the nation's richest reserves of gas, the Barnett shale field.

But despite all the theatrics, no one in the oil and gas industry is scoffing at the possibility of the ballot proposition's passage. While gas producers in the area are trying to keep a low profile, oil and gas company executives that are drilling nationally, including Shell Oil and Breitling Energy, have expressed uneasiness that the Denton vote threatens to encourage antifracking forces nationwide.

''I think I have to be concerned about it,'' said Marvin E. Odum, president of Shell Oil, of the Denton vote. ''So I am concerned about it.''

And State Representative Phil King, a Republican who represents a nearby district also on the Barnett shale field, said a vote in favor of a ban in Denton could have a ripple effect in Texas. ''The concern is that the antifracking community will try to take this all across the state and cities across the country and try to outlaw fracking,'' he said.

Denton is just the latest, and unlikeliest, battleground in a movement that has gained momentum around the country. Communities from Colorado to Pennsylvania have imposed similar bans, and the state of New York has prohibited fracking since 2008. By all accounts, the antifracking campaign here has caught the gas companies and their supporters flat-footed.

''If the election were held today, we would lose,'' said Dianne Edmondson, chairwoman of the Denton County Republican Party, which has picked up the pro-drilling banner along with the Chamber of Commerce. ''I'm telling the anti-ban folks that they have to pick up their campaign.''

With the vote about a month away, the debate is heating up.

''If the city of Denton can be persuaded to ban fracking, that will confirm all of the wild, environmental, wacko accusations that have been made about fracking all around the country,'' said Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Dallas-based public policy research group, said during a debate at a community center last week. ''The only reason for this campaign is for press releases to go out all over the country against fracking.''

Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas philosophy professor and one of leaders of the antifracking forces, responded: ''They try to slander us. This is about common-sense regulation to protect the health and safety of our community.''

Denton is a college town, liberal by the standards of most suburban Texas communities, and its population includes only a tiny fraction of the people in the area who own royalty rights to the gas produced by roughly 280 wells under their properties.

Thousands of voters here are students, renters and owners of homes in subdivisions where developers retained the mineral rights. The pollution, noise and added traffic generated by the fracking trucks and drilling rigs can be all the more irritating when not accompanied by a monthly royalty check.

An economic study commissioned by the pro-fracking forces asserts that over a 10-year period the ban would lead not only to lost jobs but also to a decline of $251 million in economic activity, a $5.1 million reduction in municipal tax revenues and a loss of $4.6 million to the Denton school district. The pro-ban forces dispute those findings, saying that a ban would increase home values and real estate taxes.

Even the industry's supporters acknowledge that opposition to fracking has been growing for years. Since 2012, the city has imposed several moratoriums as officials overhauled the drilling laws to protect homeowners complaining of wells constructed too close to their homes. Then last year, the city banned new well-drilling within 1,200 feet of a home.

But the industry claims the city cannot arbitrarily redraw permits for previously drilled wells where fracking could now be used to increase their productivity. This year, some Denton residents sued EagleRidge Energy, a Dallas-based company, for drilling within 300 feet of their homes. The company argues that it was merely redrilling wells that were given permits years before the housing was built, and that it has vested rights.

With that battle still in the courts, the antifracking forces gathered more than 1,900 signatures to put on the Nov. 4 ballot their proposal to end fracking in Denton once and for all. They argue that more than 10,000 acres of land in the city may still be drilled and fracked since those parcels received drilling permits before the 2013 municipal ordinance was enacted.

Chris Faulkner, chief executive of Breitling Energy, who has testified before Denton's City Council opposing the ban, blamed EagleRidge for inciting much of the Denton rebellion, saying the company ''is doing whatever they want to do without considering the impact on the city and the residents.'' EagleRidge did not respond to a request for comment.

But Bobby Jones, a leader of the pro-fracking forces, defended EagleRidge, which drilled two wells on his ranch, saying, ''I slept with my windows open while they were drilling.'' One well site was a few hundred feet from his house, and his family has suffered no health problems, he said, adding that fracking opponents ''are using the benzene as a scare tactic.''

Still, Mr. Jones acknowledged his side's uphill fight. ''We're three years behind,'' he said.

In the end, the fight will not end with the referendum. The producers say only state regulators are empowered to put restrictions on production, but fracking opponents here say they will not be intimidated by lawsuits, which have already begun. Republicans in the state legislature are already preparing legislation to prohibit local governments from banning fracking.

''They're going to kill us with lawsuits one way or another,'' said Cathy McMullen, the dogged home care nurse, as she drove her Prius around town distributing lawn signs the other day. ''We might as well go down fighting.''


 

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