Across the country, hydraulic fracturing — pumping water, sand and chemicals into shale to release oil and gas, also known as “fracking” — has been both highly lucrative and highly criticized. Opponents claim it is an environmental disaster that pollutes the air, contaminates the groundwater and can trigger earthquakes. Its boosters argue it’s the key to energy independence for America and creates jobs, millions of them.
Now, fracking is under fire in a state where it began: Texas.
Voters in Denton, Tex. — a college town of about 123,000 atop the gas-rich Barnett Shale formation — became the first in the state to ban fracking on Tuesday when they approved a ballot measure with 59 percent of the vote.
The battle could become a “template,” it is said, for others across the country as the technology nears more densely populated areas. Although Denton has more than 270 natural gas wells, residents aren’t grappling over arguments about global warming. It’s the constant noise, traffic and toxic fumes that have been a concern since 2009, when wells started popping up near a park.
The state of Texas and the industry are beside themselves and as expected, have filed lawsuits to stop it.
Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter said in a statement this week that he was disappointed in voters who “fell prey to scare tactics and mischaracterizations of the truth in passing the hydraulic fracturing ban.”
“Texas is a global energy leader and has the best job climate in the country because of our fair, even-handed regulatory environment. Bans based on misinformation — instead of science and fact — potentially threaten this energy renaissance and as a result, the well-being of all Texans,” he said. “This issue will continue to be hotly contested. I am confident that reason and science will triumph, and the ban will be overturned.”
Critics of the ban say it could rob the city and state of billions in natural gas revenue and lead to lengthy — and costly — legal battles. The Barnett Shale has produced more than 4.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which amounts to more than $10 billion in economic gain per year, according to the industry.
About $30 million of that has gone to the city of Denton, the Associated Press reported.
Supporters of the ban see the beginning of a nationwide movement.
Bruce Baizel, energy program director for Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental group, said in a statement that “the passage of a fracking ban in Denton, Texas, is first and foremost a victory for Denton residents.
“It’s a victory for their families’ health, for their economy, and for their future. But it’s also a victory for communities across the country. Denton, Texas, is where hydraulic fracturing was invented. … It’s a place that knows fracking perhaps better than any other. If this place in the heart of the oil and gas industry can’t live with fracking, then who can? The answer, at present, is ‘no one.'”
On Wednesday, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Oil & Gas Association, a trade organization, sought separate injunctions to keep the ban from being enforced. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson called it a violation of the Texas constitution, saying the state alone controls the use of the land, according to the lawsuit filed in county court.
In a separate suit filed in district court, the Texas Oil & Gas Association said the prohibition robs owners of their property rights because there’s no other practical way to get at the oil and gas trapped beneath the surface.
“We believe the city of Denton lacks authority to ban the only commercially viable method of producing oil and gas in their locality,” Texas Oil & Gas Association attorney Tom Phillips told the AP.
If courts enforce the ban, the case could become a model for others seeking to challenge fracking, said Lori Glover, the co-chair of the Sierra Club in Big Bend, which helped get the ballot measure passed.
“What happened in Denton shows people that it can be done,” she said.
If the ban isn’t blocked, it will go into effect Dec. 2.
Last Tuesday, others around the country voted on similar laws. In California, San Benito and Mendocino counties approved measures to stop fracking, while Santa Barbara County voted one down. In Ohio, voters in Athens supported the ban while voters in three other communities defeated them.
After the proposition passed in Denton, Cathy McMullen, who heads the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which collected nearly 2,000 signatures to put it on the ballot, teared up, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
“It says that industry can’t come in and do whatever they want to do to people,” she told supporters. “They can’t drill a well 300 feet from a park anymore. They can’t flare 200 feet from a child’s bedroom anymore.”
For now, the debate is in the hands of the courts, Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, told the Dallas Morning News.
“At risk are not only our constitutional rights, but also the loss of high-paying jobs, much needed tax revenue, access to low-cost electricity and further exploitation by activist groups seeking to advance their anti-oil and gas ideology,” he said.