There’s a lot left to figure out about the historic fracking ban that Denton passed by voter referendum last month (chief on that list: is it constitutional?), but one thing that’s clear is that, when it comes to fighting fracking at the ballot box, municipalities are interested. As the Dallas Morning News reports from the Texas town of Reno (outside of Paris), that’s something that’s picking up steam in the wake of Denton’s example:
Reno took the first step toward what Stokes believes will be an outright ban by passing a law in April limiting disposal well activity to operators who can prove the injections won’t cause earthquakes.
Reno and other cities are taking their lead from Denton, where the state’s first ban on fracking within city limits takes effect Tuesday. The Denton ban has become a “proxy for this big war between people who want to stop fracking and people who want to see it happen,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
Reno’s interested in banning fracking, but they’re hardly the only part of the state (or indeed, the country) who’s seen Denton’s example and considered whether something like that would pass where they are. In Alpine and Presidio, the Morning News points out, advocates are seeking the same thing.
Fracking bans are popular because the process itself—while useful to anyone who, say, drives a car powered by fossil fuels—carries a lot of safety risks. There are potentially earthquakes, like the nine(!) that have struck Irving since October, none of which can be conclusively linked to fracking. There’s a risk of groundwater contamination; or of limited water supplies being monopolized by the process. There are, to put it mildly, a lot of concerns about fracking as a practice, even if the fruits of that practice tend to end up in the gas tanks of even the people who oppose it. (In other words, it wouldn’t be unfair to describe municipal bans as a not-in-my-backyard approach to the issue.)
There’s a good reason why people might be interested in NIMBYism as it relates to fracking, though. The Texas Tribune reported from Denton over the summer about what fracking looked like to residents, and why they opposed it, and it’s a striking look at how it’s changed the area:
Debbie Ingram understands the importance of Texas’s oil and gas industry, and she enjoys the look of a lit-up drilling rig rising in the nighttime sky.
But a few months of living about 400 feet from a natural gas well — the source of a cacophony of noises and nauseating fumes that, at times, have overtaken her brick house — prompted her to join hundreds of others pushing back against the industry in this North Texas city.
“I couldn’t sit on the back porch because I couldn’t breathe,” said Ingram, 67, wearing a black T-shirt reading “Frack Free Denton,” the name of the grassroots group spearheading that opposition.
On one hand, fracking opposition could reasonably be described as NIMBYism; on the other hand, if fracking were to take place in everyone‘s backyard, it’s hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t oppose it. That’s something that was thrown into sharp relief when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson joined a lawsuit that would prevent fracking near his Bartonville home.
Still, measures to prevent fracking have to do more than just win at the ballot box—they have to prove that they can pass constitutional muster. When the Denton ban passed, even a paper as far off as the Los Angeles Times reported about the measures that were being undertaken to overturn the new law:
Energy companies and the state are fighting it. Already this week, separate lawsuits have been filed in two district courts — by Texas Oil & Gas Assn. and the state’s General Land Office — challenging and attempting to block the ordinance. The leader of the state commission that approves drilling permits pledged this week to continue issuing them in Denton.
Thomas Phillips, an attorney for the association and former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, issued a statement questioning the ordinance’s legality.
“Many of the wells in Denton cannot be produced without hydraulic fracturing, so a ban denies many mineral interest owners the right to gain value from their property, despite the state’s public policy in favor of developing natural resources,” Phillips wrote.
One of those mineral interest owners in question is George P. Bush, who the Morning News says owns 13 million acres of mineral rights in Texas (including in Denton)—Bush, of course, is the Texas Land Commissioner-elect, which makes his interest in opposing a ban like Denton’s a somewhat tidy package: He can use his office on behalf of mineral rights holders who oppose the ban because he’s one of them.
At the moment, it looks like Reno and Alpine are up next, when it comes to severe measures like the outright ban enacted by Denton to stop fracking in their backyards. But if the ban survives legal challenges, the question is likely to end up being: If even the CEO of Exxon acknowledges that living next to fracking is deeply unpleasant, what oil-rich municipality wouldn’t find itself passing a popular ballot initiative to ban the practice in their part of the state?