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October 9, 2014

Outside Money Pours Into Fracking-Ban Fight in Texas

IPI expert referenced: Tom Giovanetti | In The News | Media Hit
  Energy Wire

Mike Lee, E&E reporter

DENTON, Texas -- Supporters and opponents of a proposal to ban hydraulic fracturing here are trying to claim the home-field advantage, with four weeks left before the potentially precedent-setting election.

Campaign finance reports show that opponents of the ban have raised more than four times as much money as the activists who forced an election on the issue, $231,000 to $51,000.

About $30,000 of Pass the Ban PAC's contributions came in kind from the environmental group Earthworks, based in Washington, D.C. About 97 percent of Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy's funding, $225,000, came from three oil and gas companies. Only two of its donations came from people living in the city.

The organizers of the ban campaign, who have been meeting each Tuesday for about six weeks at a restaurant just north of the town square here, say they're counting on a well-organized group of volunteers and community sentiment to win the election.

"We don't need to compete financially," said Cathy McMullen, board president of the Frack Free Denton, gesturing to about 35 volunteers clustered around stacks of door-hangers and campaign literature. "We have people who are becoming involved who've never been involved in anything before. We have people registering to vote who've never voted before."

The pro-ban group also hopes to capitalize on recent tests that showed high levels of pollutants at parks near drilling sites in the Dallas-Fort Worth area -- including McKenna Park in Denton (EnergyWire, Oct. 1).

Michael Hennen, a retired attorney, said he got involved with the anti-drilling campaign partly because he lives across the street from McKenna Park and sometimes smells fumes from the tank batteries.

Like several volunteers at the Tuesday meeting, Hennen said he was surprised he didn't meet more opposition.

"If you look around town, our yard sign numbers are much greater than the other side's," he said. "The people of Denton are on our side, we just basically have to get them out to vote."

The ban's opponents, Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, have hired a well-known Fort Worth political consultant, the Eppstein Group, that specializes in direct mail. The company claims a 90 percent winning record in 1,500 elections on its website.

The taxpayers' group has already sent at least two rounds of fliers to Denton residents and set up a website with links to an economic study showing the potential harm the ban would cause and an opinion piece by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips saying the ban would be unconstitutional.

The outside spending shows how important the election is to the oil and gas industry, said Tom Giovanetti, president of the Dallas-based Institute for Policy Innovation, who has spoken against the ban. If it passes, particularly in Texas, it could encourage activists who want broader bans on hydraulic fracturing.

"There will be a flood of press releases issued by every environmental group all over the country," he said.

And state Rep. Phil King, a Republican from nearby Weatherford, has said approving the ban could prompt the state Legislature to pass a law preventing cities from taking similar action -- "In fact, I'll probably file it myself," he told The Dallas Morning News.

The gas industry is also trying to paint Frack Free Denton as out of touch, noting its contributions from Earthworks and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The use of east coast anti-fracking groups to help pass presumably 'local' drilling bans is a common tactic in campaigns to shut down energy development," wrote Lucas Frances, a researcher for Energy in Depth, in a blog post.

The ban wouldn't stop drilling inside Denton, only hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process of breaking up rock formations with a high-pressure blast of water, sand and chemicals. The Barnett Shale, a gas-soaked layer of rock that lies beneath Denton, can't be developed without fracking.

Denton's significance

A lot of cities in the Barnett Shale have ordinances governing different aspects of the drilling prospect. Dallas passed an ordinance in December with a 1,500-foot setback between wells and nearby homes that opponents said amounted to a ban on drilling.

Denton's proposition is significant because it specifically bans part of the production process and because the city already has more than 200 active gas wells.

Proponents argue it's a last-ditch attempt to fix problems caused by a single drilling company, Dallas-based EagleRidge Energy.

Denton has an ordinance on the books that requires a 1,200-foot setback between gas wells and homes. EagleRidge claimed its sites, some of which are older vertical wells, are exempt from the ordinance because they were there before the ordinance was passed. About 18 months ago, it began drilling and fracking wells within 300 feet of people's homes.

Mark Grawe, a vice president at EagleRidge, referred questions to a trade group representative, Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

Ireland said during a Sept. 2 debate about the ban that Denton city officials bear some of the blame because they allowed houses to be built close to existing gas wells.

It's unclear which message will resonate most with voters in Denton, a suburban college town about 45 miles north of Dallas, said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas. Denton County voters are more conservative than the rest of the state; they favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama 65 percent to 33 percent in the last presidential election.

The city of Denton, though, with a full-time population of 123,000, is home to two colleges with about 50,000 students. It's unclear how many students vote in the city, but a lot of them are volunteering in the frack-ban campaign, Eshbaugh-Soha said.

"I don't know how you can quantify the impact of more members and more activity -- that might make it more of an even fight," he said.

Click here to read Pass the Ban's campaign finance report.

Click here to read Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy's campaign finance report.


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