Cathy McMullen leans on the white picket fence surrounding the restored farmhouse she moved into five years ago to escape fracking and shakes her head in sorrow.
McMullen and her husband originally dreamed of retiring to a ranch house on 11 acres outside of Decatur. Then a drilling rig went up 1,800 feet from their home. The narrow gravel roads became clogged with trucks and they were told that a pipeline was going to run by their orchard and barn.
McMullen and her husband high-tailed it into Denton, where they thought they’d be protected. Imagine McMullen’s frustration when she discovered that city ordinances would allow an operator to set up shop less than 100 feet from a home.
“We moved into town to get more protection from the city and then found there was no protection,” McMullen said. “It was unbelievable.”
Determined to fight back, McMullen started a grassroots movement that pushed for better city regulations. When the group felt that didn’t work, it collected nearly 1,900 signatures to put on the Nov. 4 ballot the first proposed municipal ban on hydraulic fracturing in Texas.
While other communities across the country have imposed similar prohibitions, the notion seems wildly out of place in a state where the oil and gas industry is king. Some say it also has made this college town of about 123,000 the global epicenter on the issue of hydraulic fracturing.
“All eyes are on Denton,” said Mayor Chris Watts. “There seems to be this belief that if it starts here it will spread. Many people want to make this a state and national issue. There are interests from across the country coming in to advocate for their position.”
Ed Ireland of the industry-sponsored Barnett Shale Energy Education Council and others portray the ban as drastic, one that would have broad economic implications that spread far beyond Denton.
“A ban on drilling is not something anyone wants to see in the industry in the state of Texas or anywhere,” Ireland said. “It has too many negative implications.”
Clearly, industry, state officials and lawmakers are paying attention to the the idea of a Denton ban on hydraulic fracturing — the act of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to break up the shale to release oil and gas. Indeed, they worry that the idea may spread.
State Rep. Phil King and others said the proponents of the ban have been so effective in getting out their message that they would not be surprised if it’s approved.
“Looks like to me if you held the election today it would pass,” King, a Republican from Weatherford, said last week.
Caught slightly off guard by the anti-fracking movement, the industry is now pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into its own group, Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, which has hired a high-profile Fort Worth political consultant to help fight the ban.
It has sent out slick mailers saying the city, schools and the University of North Texas will lose millions in tax revenue if the ban is passed. Another mailer warns that the city will spend millions defending a ban that several current and former state officials say is unconstitutional.
The group’s website, which calls for responsible drilling instead of an outright prohibition, goes so far as to question the patriotism of those backing the ban by suggesting that they have ties to Russia and that their efforts threaten U.S. energy independence.
“I’m hoping we can win this thing and put it to bed,” said Bobby Jones, a local businessman and co-chairman of the Denton taxpayers group. “It ain’t good for the city of Denton if we don’t. Hopefully, we can stop it right here.”
McMullen is working long hours passing out yard signs, stumping at public forums and testing air quality at well sites in her spare time. Her cohorts include a music professor and jazz drummer, a retired professor of public health and a three-woman singing troupe called The Frackettes.
She and her colleagues are highly organized. They meet once a week at a local restaurant to pore over maps to make sure they evenly distribute yards signs and door hangers that talk about how “the city has failed to protect us, the industry bullies us and state and federal regulators ignore us.”
Painted to be a liberal activist by the industry, McMullen says she didn’t routinely vote before getting involved in what has become a political brouhaha that threatens to split her town apart.
“I’m not an activist. I see this as a property rights and a civil rights issue,” McMullen said. “I’m not an activist — like someone called me a tree hugger. I don’t know if I’m left or right.
“Call me what I am — aggravated,” she said.
Denton is in the middle of the Barnett Shale, which covers about 5,000 square miles in North Texas, one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields. While fracking’s widespread use has greatly boosted domestic oil and gas production, it has also sparked controversy and growing opposition, including moratoriums in New York state and several cities in Colorado and California.
Fort Worth, Arlington, Denton and other cities have struggled with urban drilling. Denton, which has 272 active gas wells within its city limits and another 212 within its extraterritorial jurisdiction, imposed moratoriums in 2012 and 2013 as it revised its drilling ordinances.
Some trace Denton’s problems back to the early 2000s. Drilling permits were not issued by a gas well division, but by the Denton Fire Department, which followed the fire code and Texas Railroad Commission guidelines. Only a 100-foot setback was required between a well and a home, business or school. It seemed adequate, since many of the wells, as one council member put it, were “on the edge of nowhere.”
Then Denton expanded to encompass those areas as drilling technology changed forever with the advent of horizontal drilling — wildcatters could veer their vertical wells off on an arc, tapping into reserves miles away. Drilling pads also could support multiple wells and old wells could be reworked.
Denton’s drilling ordinances evolved to provide additional protections for the public’s health and safety, and setbacks steadily increased until a revised ordinance, adopted last year, boosted the distance to 1,200 feet.
But in those intervening years the city allowed housing developers to build within 250 feet of established wells while the typical setback ordinance in other cities was larger. In Fort Worth, for example, there is a 600-foot setback between a well and other structures.
Another complication was that the Fire Department issued permits for wells at some pad sites in perpetuity, so that a gas producer did not have to seek a new permit for additional wells.
“The holders of those original permits didn’t have to go get a new permit. That is the key factor that is making all of this so controversial,” Ireland said. “It was extremely unusual.”
Denton City Councilman Dalton Gregory blames the council for passing ordinances that did not do an effective job of balancing the rights of mineral and surface owners, often putting them on a collision course. As a result, there are new homes that are literally a stone’s throw from a well site, he said.
“I paced it off,” Gregory said of a new development on the city’s southwest side. “The front wall of a house is 78 feet from the fence around a gas pad site. Here is the astounding thing. Those homes are sold and the people moved in. ... I wouldn’t buy a house there and I wouldn’t advise anybody to buy a house there.”
In 2009, a request to drill near McKenna Park and McMullen’s home brought the issue to a head. McMullen and others were particularly upset when Range Resources, on the advice of a geologist, opted to drill 300 feet from the park instead of 3,000, she said. Gregory said the city was powerless to stop it.
Fumes filled the air.
“We were told that it’s temporary and just keep the windows closed and don’t go outside and it will all be over before you know it,” McMullen said.
Residents continued to complain. McMullen, who said she couldn’t sit back and wait for the city to protect her, helped form the Denton Drilling Awareness Group to monitor drilling and seek tougher city regulations.
Then, last year, EagleRidge Energy used a old permit to drill new wells in southwest Denton. The city tried to stop the drilling but a state district court judge denied its request for a temporary injunction and eventually the city reached an agreement with EagleRidge and dropped its lawsuit. EagleRidge did not respond to requests from the Star-Telegram seeking comment.
What happened with EagleRidge finally led to the Denton Drilling Awareness Group’s petition drive seeking the proposed ban, which would prevent additional fracking from taking place. If approved by voters, the ban would not stop a traditional well, although drilling proponents said those wells aren’t productive.
“We felt we had exhausted our dialogue with the city and the industry,” said Ed Soph, a jazz drummer, a professor at UNT and the drilling awareness group’s treasurer. “The only recourse was to have a ban — that is when we started this campaign.”
For the ban’s backers, the campaign is equal parts theater and old-fashioned ward politics.
A University of North Texas philosophy professor filmed a documentary called How Denton Got Fracked. Three volunteers, nicknamed The Frackettes, sing a satirical song, Fracking Is Your Town’s Best Friend. Hometown Grammy-award winning polka band Brave Combo is scheduled to appear at a rally Monday.
When they’re not poking fun at their foes, the same people are highly organized, registering voters, knocking on doors, putting out yard signs and asking their neighbors if they need a ride to the polls. They are trained in what to say and how to say it.
Their political action committee has raised about $50,000 so far, campaign contribution reports show, with about $30,000 coming from Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group. The money has paid for T-shirts, billboards, mailers and website design.
“We’re aware of their power and realistic of their power. It is a David vs. Goliath fight and we’ve got our slingshots loaded,” Soph said.
Opponents of the ban scrambled to find a way to fight back and show that not everyone is in love with the idea. The Denton Chamber of Commerce and the Denton County Republican Party have both come out against it, calling instead for “reasonable and responsible oil and gas drilling.”
The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce even weighed in, financing a study that said banning hydraulic fracturing in Denton would cause potential losses of $251.4 million in economic activity over 10 years and more than 2,000 jobs. The study also said it would reduce tax revenue by $5.1 million to the city of Denton and $4.6 million to the Denton school district.
The Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy group was formed with Jones and his neighbor Randy Sorrells at the helm. Jones is vague on how exactly the group got organized or how it quickly collected 8,000 petition signatures of those who opposed the ban.
Devon Energy, XTO and Enervest Operating contributed $75,000 each to the group, making up the bulk of the $231,000 that Denton Taxpayers has raised, according to campaign reports. There are only eight other donors listed. About $186,000 went to Fort Worth political consultant Bryan Eppstein’s firm for advertising, signs, direct mail and other campaign materials.
Besides quoting chamber economic studies, the website suggests that “American energy security is under attack” and that there are “Denton drilling ban supporters with Russian ties.” The website refers to letters from two Texas Railroad Commission members raising questions about Moscow secretly working with environmental groups to ban hydraulic fracturing in Europe to boost their need for Russian energy. It also says that UNT philosphy professor Adam Briggle has appeared on a Russian news program talking about fracking.
Jones and Sorrells don’t have much to say about accusing fellow citizens of being Communist sympathizers. Instead Sorrells, who lives on about 75 acres with several gas wells on it, said what is needed are some “basic, good regulations” and a crackdown on the “bad apples” who violate those rules.
“I’ve got three kids who are smart and healthy, and 35 to 40 animals who sleep next to these gas wells. Nobody is sick and nobody has had any breathing problems,” Sorrells said. “A ban is so drastic. After the space shuttle blew up, we didn’t shut down the space program.”
Current and former state officials have said that the ban, if adopted, faces several legal hurdles.
Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips told the City Council in July that the Texas Constitution says no law shall contain any provision that contravenes laws passed by the Legislature. He said the Natural Resource Code states that “minerals of this state be fully and effectively exploited.”
Outgoing Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said the state has mineral interests in Denton and he won’t rule out going to court to protect them. “What specific legal action that would be, I don’t know, but I’m confident that is what we would do,” he said.
King said he would be among several lawmakers who would offer legislation that would prohibit cities from enacting such bans. He said there needs to be uniform regulation of the industry statewide.
“We need to make sure cities have reasonable authority to have reasonable regulations like setbacks. But they can’t out-and-out ban drilling, which is what this referendum does,” he said.
On the day the referendum was put on the ballot, Mayor Watts said the issue of whether the city can ban fracking will likely be decided “in the statehouse or the courthouse.”
But for McMullen, it’s too early to think about what may happen if the ban passes. Already working 12 to 15 hours a day, she doesn’t plan to stop until the polls close.
“I can’t look backward and I can’t look forward. I live for today,” McMullen said.