A North Texas city that sits atop a natural gas reserve is preparing for an extended court battle after voters made it the first in the state to ban further hydraulic fracturing -- a fight that cities nationwide considering similar laws will likely be watching closely.
An industry group and the state's little-known but powerful General Land Office responded quickly to the measure Denton approved Tuesday night, seeking an injunction in District Court to stop it from being enforced.
Battling the fracking ban will be Texas Land Commissioner-elect George P. Bush's first fight. The founding partner of an energy and infrastructure consultancy, Bush promoted the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, throughout his campaign.
The ban could have a domino effect in Texas, threatening an "energy renaissance" in shale resources accessed with the drilling technique, said David Porter, a commissioner on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state's oil and gas regulator.
Scores of cities in other states have considered similar bans over health and environmental concerns. Measures aimed at restricting fracking passed Tuesday in Athens, Ohio, and California's San Benito and Mendocino Counties, but failed elsewhere in those states.
The proposal in Denton, a university town about 40 miles north of Dallas, was a litmus test on whether any community in Texas -- the nation's biggest oil and gas producer -- could rebuff the industry and still thrive.
The courts must "give a prompt and authoritative answer" on whether Denton voters had the authority to ban fracking, Texas Oil and Gas Association attorney Tom Phillips, a former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, said Wednesday.
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"We believe the city of Denton lacks authority to ban the only commercially viable method of producing oil and gas in their locality," he said.
Lori Glover, the co-chair of the Sierra Club in Big Bend, made a presentation to the Alpine City Council in southwest Texas in July, asking it to preemptively ban fracking. If the ban holds up in Denton, it will likely create a precedent that makes it easier to pass a similar law in Alpine, she said.
"What happened in Denton shows people that it can be done," Glover said Wednesday, adding that the area around Big Bend is fracking's "last frontier" in Texas.
Industry groups have warned the ban could deliver a severe hit to Denton's economy. The gas fields under it have produced $1 billion in mineral wealth and pumped more than $30 million into city bank accounts.
Denton's city attorney is reviewing the petition and has said the City Council has as much as $4 million in a risk fund to combat legal challenges, according to city spokeswoman Lindsey Baker.
Pro-bono environmental attorneys have offered Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which submitted the petition for a fracking ban ordinance in June, assistance in the case.
"We're in it for the long haul," said founder Cathy McMullen.
Property rights in Texas are split between the land and the minerals below. Phillips says the ban violates the Texas Constitution. Baker says that's for the courts to decide.
Nationally, courts have come down on both sides of the issue.
New York's highest court determined that local governments have land-use powers to say where oil and gas wells can be located, even to the extent of an outright ban. A judge in Boulder ruled that a fracking ban interfered with the state's interests, which take precedence in Colorado.
Fracking involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations to release trapped oil and gas. The push to limit fracking got a boost in June when Frack Free Denton submitted a petition to the City Council with enough signatures to force a vote.
Because the council rejected it, the measure went to a public vote.
Supporters of the measure had raised only a fraction as much as opponents by the end of October, according to the city secretary's political campaign reports.