Wearing a white cowboy hat, a long duster and a bushy mustache and drinking a Miller Lite, Ron Watson didn’t look like someone who would associate with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A retired FBI agent, he was waiting at a downtown Denton bar Tuesday night to celebrate the passage of the state’s first ban ever on fracking with his wife, Cathy McMullen, leader of a grassroots group that fought to prohibit the controversial drilling technique.
Yet Watson, his wife and their friends, who thought they were involved in a city dispute, ended up having their patriotism questioned by the energy industry. A website it sponsored suggested that the ban’s backers had ties to Russia and that their efforts threatened U.S. energy independence.
“It is frustrating to be called a Communist. We laugh about it,” McMullen said. To lighten the mood, three volunteers in her group even performed a satirical song that included the line “when hippies try [to] crush ya, just say they’re funded by Russia.”
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To the oil and gas industry, Denton’s ban is no laughing matter. Fearful that the idea may spread across Texas, opponents alleged that there was more behind the fight than local residents bemoaning smelly, noisy wells near their homes or favorite city parks.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency is suing the city over the ban that is set to go into effect Dec. 2, suggested that Denton residents were pawns of a leftist environmental movement pushing a bigger agenda.
Patterson’s agency, along with the powerful Texas Oil and Gas Association, could hardly wait for the courthouse doors to open before filing lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the ban.
“It is a movement about any kind of hydrocarbon production. It was about taking whatever local issue there is at play for the bigger cause against oil and gas,” Patterson said. “Talking about fracking has sizzle and is sexy, but it’s been going on for decades. It is the cause celeb of the left.”
State Rep. Phil King represents an area where hydraulic fracturing, along with horizontal drilling, was first used to drill for gas. The Weatherford Republican has been dealing with these issues for years and does not question the McMullens’ motives. But he also believes that a bigger game is afoot.
“This vote has national implications,” King said. “I feel very confident that this is something the anti-fossil fuel groups will take across Texas and the country.”
McMullen, for her part, says she is as “American as the next person.”
“I grew up in this state and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt this state. But there is a point when you realize there is a time to take a stand,” she said.
‘Display of arrogance’
Denton’s drilling ban had humble beginnings.
The college town is in the middle of the Barnett Shale, which covers 5,000 square miles in North Texas, one of the nation’s richest natural gas fields. Denton currently has about 270 active well sites within its city limits and another 212 within its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Like other cities, Denton has struggled over the years to deal with urban drilling, revising its ordinance several times and imposing moratoriums in 2012 and 2013. Frustrated by how the city was dealing with wells being placed closer and closer to homes, residents eventually petitioned to put the ban on the ballot.
The ordinance approved by 59 percent of city voters last week does not prohibit all drilling, just fracking, or the act of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to break up the shale to release oil and gas. The industry argues it essentially blocks all drilling because the technique is needed to operate profitably.
McMullen got involved when a gas operator decided to drill 300 feet from a park and the city was powerless to stop it. She had already moved once to escape drilling.
“This was the biggest irony ever. What did I do in a previous life? Who have we pissed off?” she joked. “It was a disgusting display of arrogance — their attorney said we can put it where we want.”
McMullen’s campaign took off when an operator used an old permit to drill near a subdivision. She eventually joined forces with others in the environmental movement, particularly Sharon Wilson, who works in Texas for Earthworks, a Washington, D.C., environmental group. Earthworks eventually donated about $40,000 to the ban’s backers.
The oil and gas industry was caught slightly off guard, but eventually pumped at least $700,000 into a campaign against the ban that included robocalls, slick mailers, and television and radio ads.
One website referred to letters from two Texas Railroad Commission members, one written to the Denton City Council, that raised questions about Moscow secretly working with environmental groups to ban hydraulic fracturing in Europe to boost their need for Russian energy.
“With this in mind, I trust you will determine whether funding and manpower behind this effort to ban hydraulic fracturing in Denton is coming from out of state or from those who would profit from the imposition of the ban, ” wrote Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman.
Make no mistake, Bernard Weinstein, an economist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, did not campaign for the fracking ban in Denton. But he’s not buying the Russian connection, either.
“Christ, give me a break. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories out there. That Russians are trying to undermine drilling in the U.S.? I find that hard to believe,” Weinstein said. “Do you really think Vladamir Putin is paying attention to what is going on in Denton, Texas? I don’t think so.”
Weinstein, a former faculty member at the University of North Texas in Denton, attributes the ban’s passage to the “liberal university phenomenon,” not “anti-carbon” forces.
An analysis of voting returns shows the ban’s biggest support came from near the college, said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry-backed group, Ironically, one neighborhood mentioned as a trouble spot in the campaign voted 2-1 against the ban, he said.
King said the campaign started with one “bad actor that was not being a good corporate neighbor” and mushroomed. He said he will be meeting in the coming weeks with all of the stakeholders about legislation about just how far a municipality can go to regulate drilling.
“We need to clarify who is the final regulator of oil and gas in Texas and that discussion has to be very collaborative and we need to make sure everyone is at the table,” King said.
McMullen said the campaign tactics used by the oil and gas industry in Denton backfired. “It was observed that what they were trying to do was buy the vote, but some things are not for sale.”
Her group is prepared to fight. In a statement posted on the Frack Free Denton website, she wrote that the ban was a “last resort” of residents who tried for years to get the government and industry to work with them.
“If you want to prevent more bans, especially in towns that know drilling best, do yourselves a favor and listen to concerned citizens. Because if you don’t, you may wind up reaping what you’ve sown,” McMullen wrote.