Denton Fracking Future Unclear

After only six months it looks likely that Denton’s fracking ban is about to be undone, leaving many wondering what comes next.

On Monday, the State Senate passed HB 40, the bill many have come to know as the “Denton Fracking Bill.” Having passed the House already, the final bill is now in the hands of Governor Greg Abbott where most expect he will sign it into law.

HB 40, in its current form, limits local control over gas drilling and takes away the ability of cities to place all-out bans on drilling.

University of North Texas Political Science Professor Dr. Mathew Eshbaugh-Soha has been watching the bill progress through the state and said there’s still some uncertainty for him about what all will be allowed.

The bill allows cities to regulate some surface activity in the drilling process in a “commercially reasonable” way. That could include limits on light, noise, and set-backs between homes and drill sites.

However Eshbaugh-Soha said that term, “commercially reasonable,” is where the law seems to open to interpretation.

"When we have a situation of course where a company decides to frack, a city decides, 'ooh, we don't agree that's commercially reasonable,' then that's going to go to the court,” he said.

That could affect Denton as well other North Texas cities that have drilling set-backs in place that may be considered too large under the commercially reasonable test.

In Denton, the voters approved a fracking ban in November of last year after citizens became fed up with drilling operations too close to homes. Since even before that, though, the city council had been, and continues to be, in the process of amending their drilling ordinance to rules that would better benefit all sides.

Mayor Chris Watts said, in light of the new bill likely to become law, their next moves are unclear at this point.

"We've been able to regulate some things that I'm not sure we're going to be able to at this point. We're still studying that,” said Watts.

The city will continue to fight two court battles against the fracking ban and Watts said they will work through where things go as they come.

Meanwhile, both sides of the fracking debate in Denton are weighing in on the bill passage.

Adam Briggle, President of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, said in a statement set for if-and-when the Governor signs the bill:

“By signing HB40 into law, Governor Abbott just declared that industry profits are more important than our health, our homes and our kids. The letter of Texas law now says no city can ‘effectively prevent an oil and gas operation from occurring’, no matter the threat to families’ health and safety or damage to private property.“

Briggle and the Drilling Awareness Group were instrumental in the petitioning for and eventual passage of the fracking ban in the city.

On the other side, though, advocates are declaring victory for the drilling industry and for the rights of mineral owners.

Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation in Irving and a property rights advocate said Thursday that the passage of the bill reasserts what he and others have said all along: that state law would not allow an all-out fracking ban like the one that was voted in Denton. He said the bill protects both free enterprise and the rights of mineral owners state-wide from unfair set-backs and bans on drilling.

HB 40 passed the Texas Senate by a vote of 24-7 and the House by 122-18.

Mayor Watts said stands against the bill but is happier with the current version than the original one which left cities with almost no regulatory authority at all.

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