July 16, 2014

Denton meeting on fracking ban exposes frustration on all sides

Denton council avoids direct vote on proposed fracking ban, instead voting to put the matter on the Nov. 4 ballot.

In the end, it boiled down to frustration.

Frustration by Denton residents who went to state agencies seeking help in dealing with gas drillers who are fracking close to their homes.

Frustration by Denton City Council members wanting to find a way to placate constituents without being sued.

Frustration by drilling companies who say they are doing only what the laws allow them to do.

In the end, that frustration — or reality, as the mayor called it — resulted in the council, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, allowing a citizens’ referendum initiative calling for a city ordinance to ban the controversial drilling method to make its way to the Nov. 4 ballot.

If the ordinance is approved by the voters, Denton would become the first city in Texas to outright ban hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure underground to break up rocks and release oil and gas.

The council’s vote came shortly before 3 a.m., after about 100 speakers, a few tearful, stated their views. City officials estimated that about 600 people attended the meeting, some watching the proceedings on close-circuit TV in other parts of the building.

The ban was backed by 59 of the 110 speakers who signed up to address the council. Another 161 people who attended the meeting signed cards supporting the ban.

“The whole community is frustrated,” Mayor Chris Watts said after hearing about half of the speakers, some of them saying they had gone to state regulators and others for help.

“People tried the channels they thought would be the proper channels to get relief, only to find out, in the end, there was little relief.”

Councilman Kevin Roden — who recommended the council adopt the fracking ban on its own and use it as bargaining chip — said the fight is far from over.

“I do fully anticipate, if we pass the ban, or the citizens do, that we will see the wrath of the industry and it will be costly,” Roden said.

Ed Ireland, of the industry-sponsored Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, said the outcome was what he expected, given the way the referendum initiative works.

“Everyone is operating legally,” Ireland said. The frustration “is entirely of the city’s making.”

Finally, a vote

The hearing was the result of a successful petition drive by the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which gathered almost 1,900 signatures calling for an ordinance to ban fracking.

The group was concerned about natural gas drilling’s effect on public health, welfare and safety including the injection of water, gels and acids into aquifers.

The council was required to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposed ordinance. In the end, on two procedural votes, council members decided not to vote on the ban themselves, but to put the referendum on the ballot.

Speakers during the meeting included state lawmakers, oil industry lobbyists, college students and moms. Some talked about the ban’s geopolitical impact, others about their home’s cracked foundation.

Cathy McMullen, a home health care nurse and president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, gave a presentation that included video of flaring and blown gas wells near homes while reading off complaints made to the Texas Railroad Commission about drillers and fracking.

Several speakers asked the council to simply impose the ban itself and forgo taking it to the voters. They said it would allow the community to avoid being bombarded with misinformation they said would be distributed during a slick campaign financed by the oil and gas industry.

Roden agreed, saying the council should adopt the ban and then use its repeal as a bargaining chip to force lawmakers, regulators and industry leaders to join them at the table and seek solutions.

“I think we are in a high-stakes poker game,” Roden said. “This isn’t going to be a city vote. This is going to be national politics. … It is going to be David versus Goliath.”

But after discussion that last almost an hour, the council voted 5-2 not to impose the ban and then voted unanimously to put the proposed ordinance on the Nov. 4 ballot.

“My desire is that it go before the voters. It is a decision with far-reaching implications,” Watts said. “The community and the citizens should weigh in on it.”

Statehouse or courthouse

Ireland said the city has only itself to blame for not regulating drilling consistently.

“The most interesting part of that is that in the entire eight hours, with frustration being expressed about drilling going on 250 feet from homes, at no point did they recognize that it was created by the city of Denton,” he said.

The city established a 1,200-foot setback from residences, schools and parks last year, but allows drilling within 250 feet of previously permitted well sites. The typical setback ordinance, like the one in Fort Worth, calls for a 600 foot setback, he said.

In the early 2000s the Denton Fire Department permitted the wells at a pad in perpetuity, so that any additional well did not have to seek a new permit to drill, Ireland said. And the city has allowed a subdivision to be built within 250 feet of an established well, compounding that problem, he said.

“To listen to a lot of that discussion was like this fell from the sky, but it didn’t,” Ireland said.

“The driller has a permit that is granted by the fire department and the developer of the subdivision had the permit — everyone is operating legally. But that has created the problem.”

Roden say no one anticipated the challenges of urban drilling when the Barnett Shale boom first began about 15 years ago. Denton now has 275 active gas wells within the city limits and another 212 within its extraterritorial jurisdiction.

“Everyone needs to step back. There are things the city could have done,” Roden said. “In early 2000, when the boom hit, the environmental questions weren’t raised. The city thought ‘This is great!’ But didn’t anticipate what happened in the next 15 years.”

Repeatedly during the meeting late Tuesday and early Wednesday, industry representatives warned that the proposed ban was illegal and that the city’s efforts to further regulate the drilling industry would likely result in litigation.

Watts agreed, saying the solution lies in either Austin or a courtroom.

“This is going to be decided in the statehouse or the courthouse,” he said.

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