Denton Expects Political Storm as Fracking Heads to November Ballot

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    NEWSLETTERS

    After a marathon Denton City Council meeting, voters will decide if they want to ban the controversial gas drilling method known as fracking. (Published Wednesday, Jul 16, 2014)

    Before the city council's vote even came in early Wednesday morning Denton's fracking opponents were already bracing for the long fight ahead.

    "This is the part I'm dreading," said Cathy McMullen, leader of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. "Really, the money we'll have to be spending will be in defense."

    That defense is against what they say are imminent attacks from the gas drilling industry and supporters leading up to November.

    Early Wednesday morning, the city council voted 5-2 to deny a new ordinance banning hydraulic fracture drilling in town.

    A citizens' petition gathered by McMullen's group forced the proposed ordinance to the council to either approve or put it on the November ballot, by rule of city charter.

    The meeting, which lasted 8 1/2 hours Tuesday night into Wednesday, saw 110 speakers signed up and most sticking out the long night to make public comment on the fracking issues in town.

    According to public records from the city, 59 signed up in favor of banning and 41 against. In addition, 161 submitted written statements to the city in support and 46 others submitted statements against.

    City Intergovernmental Relations Officer Lindsey Baker says nearly 600 people total attended the meeting.

    Those speaking in favor of the ban pointed to past issues between the industry and the city, including wells going up within 250 feet of homes, hundreds of feet closer than city ordinance allows.

    "I don't feel like it's healthy for the community. I don't think that our air is safe. I don't think that our water is safe," said Gena Felker, of Denton.

    "If I owned the minerals, I would be ashamed," said Alyse Ogletree, a mother of two who lived next to two wells in the Vintage Neighborhood.

    The industry came under heavy fire from commenters as well as council members for not showing up to the city until the ban was proposed; many saying they felt even state leaders had ignored Denton's drilling woes until recently.

    City leaders even repeatedly asked citizens to remind them where they were from after some industry advocates accused petitioners of being lead by out of state, even out of country interests against fracking.

    During the vote the two decenters, councilmen Kevin Roden and Dalton Gregory pointed out their fear that an election would only lead to more targeting of the city and the people.

    "I'm just really concerned about what we've seen so far in terms of misleading and inaccurate information provided by those who are against the ban," said Gregory.

    "This isn't going to be a citizen vote, this is going to be national politics hits Denton with the funding of the industry," said Roden.

    Of the 41 commenters against fracking, only 14 were listed at Denton addresses with the rest hailing from Houston, Austin, Oklahoma or elsewhere out of the city.

    Several of those from Denton reminded the council of the economic effects fracking has for Denton and for the state, and others worried about loss of their mineral rights if the ban passes.

    "I know at first getting the oil is noisy and messy and stuff, but all the good benefits that come from it," said Emily Ferguson.

    Fracking involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations to release trapped oil and gas. While the method has long stirred concerns about its effects on the environment and human health, proponents argue that fracking can be done safely and is cleaner than other forms of energy extraction. And industry groups and state regulators had warned such a ban could be followed by litigation and a severe hit to Denton's economy.

    Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Railroad Commission, the Texas oil and gas regulator, claimed in a letter addressed to Denton's mayor and city council last week that a fracking ban in Denton would "increase America's dependence" on foreign oil and natural gas.

    Tom Phillips, a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, representing the powerful Texas Oil and Gas Association, testified that some of its thousands of members would "undoubtedly sue" if the ban eventually passes.

    "That could result in tremendous legal fees against the city and ultimately to judgments against the city," said Phillips.

    Petitioners insist that the ordinance will stand up to legal challenge even presenting an opinion from attorney Jordan Yeager.

    "If the industry had approached anything near reasonableness in accepting the rules, activists would not have demanded an outright ban on fracking," said Sharon Wilson, of the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, who presented the lawyer's opinion.

    At the end of the meeting, Denton Mayor Chris Watts told those in attendance that the issue would likely end in one of two places, "the statehouse or the courthouse." He added, "No matter what we're going to get challenged, it's just a matter of when."

    City leaders also heard from state legislators Tuesday who pledged to work with the city on better regulations and enforcement, although most urged against the ban.

    Council members were hopeful those talks could help them reach a solution that will benefit both sides without an outright ban.

    The issue go up for a vote in Denton this November.