Call what happened in Denton on Tuesday a “you can’t do this to us” vote against urban natural gas drilling.
Call the next day’s lawsuits from gas companies and others seeking to block the voters’ decision a “you can’t do this to us” response.
By a dominating 59 percent of the votes cast, Denton residents banned hydraulic fracturing of wells in the city. That’s tantamount to a drilling ban, since horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are the way things are done in the oil and gas industry these days.
It was the smartest protest against the industry I’ve seen in 10 years of watching urban drilling unfold in North Texas. And it was amazingly simple for the people who engineered it.
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It may not stand — and my guess is it won’t, given the decades of legal precedent, constitutional interpretation, political dominance and financial strength behind the industry in Texas.
But nothing can take away the powerful statement that Denton residents have made with their votes. Their feelings were as negative as they could get about drilling rigs near their homes, schools, churches and other institutions.
In short, they’ve seen what it’s like when drilling and its associated noise, smell and truck traffic become part of daily urban life, and they don’t like it.
The industry’s initial counterpunch was a well-funded campaign against the ballot measure. But that campaign failed completely.
Lawsuits from the industry and the Texas General Land Office, which says revenue from state land holdings in Denton would suffer under a ban, could be successful but still further harm drilling’s image.
An industry that already spends heavily on television advertising and other image campaigns to portray itself as environmentally clean and economically beneficial does not want to be seen as a bully that overrules voters with high-priced lawyers.
Yet the industry is compelled to assert its position.
In challenge after challenge to drilling permit applications over the years, it has built up an almost religious devotion to the belief that individual landowners, even those with protesting neighbors, are entitled to exploit below-ground minerals and drillers are well-meaning intermediaries who help them.
It’s been said that the industry is fighting the Denton ban so that activists in other cities don’t try to do the same thing.
The more fundamental concern is to stop anything that chips away the link between asserted landowner rights and the industry as helper and protector.
Individual drillers might be fighting to work from their sites within 300 feet of homes in Denton, but the industry as a whole could walk away from that in an instant.
In fact, the industry could have avoided many high-impact drilling sites years ago. Horizontal well bores can be drilled from miles away, which opens up plenty of urban-area reserves to exploitation from remote sites.
But individual drillers exploited laissez-faire government attitudes — this is Texas — during the early years of the shale drilling boom. Later, they polished the image of protecting landowners and placed wells where they were convenient.
People who objected didn’t have the financial resources or staying power to fight.
Some people in Denton found another way. To get a ban on the ballot, all they had to do was get 2,000 signatures on a petition.
Then they built a clever grassroots campaign to tap into residual local frustration with urban drilling.
Their success was stunning, despite the lawsuits.