Texan community beats the frackers

November 21, 2014
Protesters march in favour of the fracking ban.

After years of a rigged task force; horrific planning and zoning meetings; city council discussions; countless hours flyering, rallying and tabling; untold industry threats; and thousands of hours of sleep lost, residents in the Texas city of Denton won a ban on hydraulic fracturing within the city limits.

This fight started in 2009, when a drilling site was set up across the street from a playground and hospital. The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates and issues permits for oil and gas drilling, had rules that specified there were to be 200-foot “setbacks” between a well and a home, business or school, while the city of Denton required only a 100-foot setback.

The Texas Star-Telegram said: “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 … the city allowed housing developers to build within 250 feet of established wells while the typical setback ordinance in other cities was larger.”

Frack Free Denton said that the city is home to about 270 gas wells, but taxes related to natural gas development account for only 1% of the city's property tax revenues. Gas well royalties account for less than 1% of the city's budget.

Activists respond

Activists responded to the explosion of fracking inside the city by increasing attendance at city council meetings. They eventually forced the city to agree to a two-stage plan: first, set up a series of committees to hammer out a stronger ordinance on fracking; and second, have public hearings of the city council to set those regulations in place.

In reality, the city set up a task force packed with industry officials and just one voice against fracking.

Anti-fracking student activists with Rising Tide North Texas and community members in the Denton Stakeholders Drilling Advisory Group, later known as the Drilling Advisory Group (DAG), organised to attend almost every task force meeting and spoke about how they wanted nothing to do with the frackers.

For about a year, the city managed to stall the task force, until a weak ordinance was finally submitted to the planning and zoning commission. By the time the proposed ordinance hit the City Council in 2011, Occupy Denton, then at its peak, helped galvanise grassroots activists.

Actists won a moratorium on fracking permits in the city, while a revised ordinance was put together.

The meetings where public comments were allowed were always attended by at least 20 anti-fracking activists. DAG and Denton Off Fossil Fuels (DOFF) maintained a presence, while trying to figure out how to propose their own ordinance.

In fact, DOFF debated whether to propose a full ban or a “de facto” ban ― by proposing setbacks of 1200 feet.

Eventually, people agreed with a de facto ban, though a full ban was still on the minds of some. Activists began working to craft a stronger ordinance with setbacks of at least 1200 feet, air and water quality testing, and requirements for drillers to purchase more insurance in the event of accidents.

When presented to the council as an alternative, these proposals were further compromised. They were whittled down as far as possible ― even as activists and community members were told the resulting ordinance was better than we should have expected.

By December 2012, people were tired but still hoping the ordinance would be adopted as initially proposed and applied to all wells, despite the city's continued argument that established wells had “vested rights” and should be exempt from new regulations.

Watered down ordinance

The city passed the watered-down version of the ordinance last year, despite civil disobedience and protests.

Frack Free Denton noted: “The revised ordinance did not include several protections that neighboring cities have used, such as prohibiting open pits, compressor stations, venting and flaring, and requiring the use of vapor recovery units and air and water monitoring.”

The next few months were confusing for activists. When the revised ordinance was violated by EagleRidge Energy within a month or so of being put into place, people expected the city to at least shut the violators down. But the city caved in.

When a state district court judge denied its request for a temporary injunction, the city eventually reached an agreement with EagleRidge and dropped its lawsuit.

Activists who had initially thought a ban was impossible, and that pressing for one would only cause rifts with the rest of the community, now decided to push for the “radical” demand of banning fracking in the city.

After meeting with a lawyer and putting a petition together, Frack Free Denton was launched. By late February, the official petition drive for a citizens' initiative was begun.

Over 180 days, people canvassed, tabled and rallied for the ban. The first meeting alone gave the petition one-third of the signatures needed to put it on the November ballot.

By the time the petition was turned in, about 2000 registered voters had signed on ― a number close to the voter turnout in most city council elections.

The council had an opportunity to pass the initiative before it was set to go to the voters. But the council was so bought off by the oil and gas industry ― one council member's wife owns a share in a gas company, for example ― that even after several public meetings with overwhelming support for the ban, it still refused.

This set off further grassroots activism. Parades were held, lawn signs were made and activists from North Texas Students Against Fracking and other groups began canvassing, flyering and tabling in support of the ban.

Corporate resistance

These activists were up against a campaign by the oil and gas industry. It raised more than US$230,000 through the group “Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy” for pro-fracking billboards, commercials, mailers and YouTube ads targeted at Denton and beyond.

Devon Energy, XTO and Enervest Operating contributed $75,000 each to the group. Only eight other donors were listed for the group.

The group engaged in outrageous attacks on anti-fracking activists. At one point, according to the Star-Telegram, the website of the group suggested that there are “Denton drilling ban supporters with Russian ties”.

The website also referred 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”.

Despite these smears, the pro-ban side won a large lead during early voting. On November 4, anti-fracking activists stood outside polling places with literature to help people understand the issue.

Even in the pouring rain, activists held umbrellas to walk people into the polling places to make sure their votes counted. When the results were in, the ban won with 58%of the vote ― despite the fact that Denton voters tend to vote 70% in favor of conservative causes.

But the oil and gas industry has decided it won't take “no” for an answer. Immediately after the victory at the polls, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Texas land commissioner Jerry Patterson filed separate legal challenges to the ban.

Denton Mayor Chris Watts declared that the city would defend the ban in court as it would any other law. Meanwhile, Christie Craddock, the new chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, said her office would still issue permits for fracking in Denton.

“It's my job to give permits, not Denton's ... We're going to continue permitting up there because it's my job,” the Dallas Morning News reported Craddick as saying.

Anti-fracking activists expected the fight would not end even if the ban passed. They see this ongoing campaign as one step in the fight for their lives and planet.

The ripple effects are already being felt by people in other communities, who are considering their fight against the frackers.

Media coverage of the ban has gone global. When Chris Faulkner, the CEO of Breitling Energy Corporation, visited London recently, he was questioned why he was trying to convince the British on fracking when Texans had already said “no”.

This is a fight that will continue, and hopefully other cities will join us in solidarity. It won't end until we have a new system that values people over profit.

[Abridged from SocialistWorker.org.]

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