Gas industry pumps big bucks into Denton fracking election

Concerned that a ban on fracking in Denton could spark similar protests across Texas, the oil and gas industry is pumping nearly $700,000 into mailers, television ads and billboards to defeat the initiative on Tuesday’s ballot.

The pro-drilling group Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, which was formed with the gas industry’s aid, filed campaign finance reports this week that show it has raised nearly 10 times as much as the $75,000 raised by its opponent, Pass the Ban.

EnerVest, Devon Energy and Fort Worth’s XTO Energy each donated $120,000, according to campaign contribution reports due Monday, boosting the amount of cash they’ve kicked in to $585,000. Overall, $690,000 of the $697,000 contributed to Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy has come from sources easily identified as industry-related.

“The groups that are very vocal about opposing the ban have made it very clear that they consider it to be a really bad idea that is bad for the city of Denton and the state of Texas,” said Ed Ireland, head of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

There’s concern that if Denton voters adopt the ban, it will spread to other Barnett Shale communities in North Texas and across the state. This month, city and state officials predicted that the ban has a chance of passing.

“If it gets a toehold in Denton … no one knows what will be next,” Ireland said.

Members of the grassroots group that petitioned to get the referendum on the ballot, who wear black T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Frack Free Denton,” always knew they would be outgunned financially.

“That was expected. That is no surprise,” said Ed Soph, a University of North Texas music professor and jazz drummer. “We looked at the playbooks of other instances of people trying to pass bans and how industry reacts to it.”

But adding to the reach of their cause is Earthworks, a Washington, D.C., environmental group that has donated about $40,000 — their biggest contributor.

There are 272 active wells in the Denton city limits and 212 others within its extraterritorial jurisdiction, according to the city’s website. Residents have been complaining about urban drilling in earnest since 2009, when a driller put in wells about 300 feet from a park.

The City Council has revised its ordinances, like many cities in North Texas, to deal with the issue. In its most recent set of rules, a setback of 1,200 feet was established from schools and other structures. But some drillers say their permits allow them to sink wells at shorter distances.

Frustrated with how the city was handling the situation, residents formed the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which eventually got nearly 2,000 signatures to put the ban on the ballot.

The referendum does not ban drilling, only hydraulic fracturing, the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to shake oil and gas loose from the shale.

But drillers say that traditional wells are simply not economical and that the ban would essentially stop drilling in the college town of 123,000.

To state its case loud and clear, the industry is putting up the money to get its story out. It also hired high-profile political consultant Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth.

Besides EnerVest, Devon and XTO, Occidental Petroleum contributed $50,000; Chevron $45,000; the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers $5,000.

Pitts Oil and WAC Co., both of Dallas, gave $2,500 each. Of the 79 contributors on this report, six were from Denton, and they gave $210.

Randy Sorrells, a local businessman and one of the leaders of Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, said it is only “common sense that oil and gas people don’t want this to happen.”

He said his group simply wants reasonable regulations and responsible drilling. “We don’t want to ban it. We just want responsible regulation so it can operate like any other industry,” Sorrells said.

Ireland also cautions against painting the energy donors as outsiders. For example, Devon paid $1.8 million in taxes to the county and $131,000 to the city.

“They have a legitimate business interest in Denton. They are not strangers,” he said.

According to the latest report, the group paid Eppstein about $344,000 for advertising, voter contact, direct mail and TV commercials. Throughout the campaign, Eppstein has been paid $530,000.

Pass the Ban took in $24,000 in the recent report, with the biggest contribution coming from Earthworks. It contributed $10,345 for postage for mailers, campaign reports show. Pass the Ban spent about $15,000 during the latest reporting period and $27,000 overall.

Earthworks set up a specific page for donations, along with a feature story on what’s going on in Denton, and is giving people the chance to make anonymous donations, Soph said.

Its own group, the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, also contributed $6,000.

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