Advertisement
VICE News

The Texas Legislature Wants to Charge Towns That Ban Fracking

Voters in Denton, Texas approved a ballot measure banning fracking within city limits — now the Texas legislature wants them, and any other city that bans the potentially hazardous drilling method, to pay for lost tax revenue.

by Meredith Hoffman
Mar 23 2015, 7:00pm

Photo by Eric Gay/AP

Fumes that smelled like "a skunk dissolved in acetone" and vibrating noise "like a constant bass" penetrated Maile Bush's Texas home for months after a fracking company started drilling across the street in 2013. About 250 fracking wells popped up in Bush's quaint town of Denton over the course of a few years — in subdivisions, near parks, and by schools.

"I'm trying to raise my kids here. You can't grow children in a gas patch," Bush, a mother of two, told VICE News outside her suburban brick house, where she said pollution had reached such a zenith she stopped letting her children go outside.

But Bush and her neighbors took action — residents of Denton voted to ban fracking in their town last November, and by December, the drilling stopped.

Now in reaction to Denton's bold move, the Texas legislature is fighting back. State politicians will consider at least eight different bills that would restrict towns from rejecting fracking — and the governor has announced that state environmental regulation is his priority.

Maile Bush (left) and Tara Linn Hunter stand in front of the fracking wells across the street from Bush's home.

"We're forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model," Governor Greg Abbott said at a conference in Austin earlier this year. "It's being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans."

The proposed laws include House Bill 539, which would require cities to pay the state for lost revenues resulting from oil and gas regulations; Senate Bill 440, which would prohibit fracking bans overall; and Senate Bill 343, which would restrict Texas cities from making their own decisions on a wide range of municipal issues.

"It all came about with Denton," Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, told VICE News of the flood of legislation to protect the lucrative industry. Reed said the legislature would most likely create a new fusion of the current proposals for a final bill.

"Every city has dealt with the issue of urban drilling differently and the industry will tell you they want certainty — boundaries established of what cities can do," Reed said.

The Texas General Land Office is also currently suing the City of Denton for overstepping its power with the fracking ban.

"The ban on hydraulic fracturing is unconstitutional and it won't stand," Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said in a press statement. He noted that his agency had contributed $1.2 billion to public school funds from fracking profits in last fiscal year.

But Denton's Mayor Chris Watts maintains that his town's residents should have the authority to decide whether fracking occurs there. Watts vehemently opposes legislation that would overturn the ban, his public relations officer told VICE News.

"The critical issue for cities is not the fracking ban, but the ability — in an urban environment — to regulate surface activities related to drilling operations associated with the health, safety, and welfare of our residents," the spokeswoman, Lindsey Baker, told VICE News. "It is unconscionable that an operator could set up a drilling rig within 100 feet of a homeowner's backyard. But that is exactly what we could be facing if the Legislature is successful in its efforts to restrict and remove traditional municipal regulatory authority as it relates to gas well operations."

Bush and many other Denton residents, meanwhile, have found the legislation frightening. They have made frequent trips down to the capital and done call-ins to legislators expressing their concern.

"I'm incredibly offended and angry," Bush told me of the legislature's push, as we strolled from her house to the fracking well that still sits across the street.

Related: These towns and counties across America just banned oil and gas fracking

Denton passed its ban after Bush and other members of the grassroots group DDAG (Denton Drilling Awareness Group) went door to door and gathered more than 2,000 signatures to a petition demanding the industry stop drilling within city limits. The City Council, presented with the initiative, then put the proposal to a citywide vote — and 60 percent of residents voting in favor of the ban.

"It was like ten New Year's Eves," DDAG organizer Tara Linn Hunter told me of the celebration when the results came in. "People were crying and hugging each other. A music venue held a big party and there were hundreds of people, of vastly different political parties."

Hunter, 31, a singer who first moved to Denton for college, first became concerned about fracking when she started developing "debilitating asthma," which she attributed to the fumes.

"I came here to sing and have spent all my time with breathing issues ... that's been the one reason we've considered moving," Hunter said. She said the state legislation was "pretty scary" and oblivious to the needs of local communities.

"It's like trying to fit squares into circles," she said of the attempt to create uniform standards for every municipality.

Eagleridge drilled fracking wells at the entrance of a subdivision in Denton, Texas, and then constructed walls to conceal the area from view. 

Hunter noted that Denton got an F-rating on the American Lung Association's air quality rating in recent years. A study done by the environmental group Shale Test also found elevated levels of the carcinogenic compound benzene in a few parks near Denton's fracking wells in 2013.

"There was a tremendous amount of pollution while kids were playing across the street [from drilling sites] in the parks," Sharon Wilson, a former Denton resident who works for the non-profit Earthworks, told VICE News.

She said the citizens had voted to ban fracking because the "state was not responding to the city's pleas for help" to regulate the industry. And Denton's fracking ban has no serious economic repercussions for Texas, since Denton covers only 87 miles out of the state's 261,000 square miles, Earthworks noted in a fact sheet shared with VICE News.

There may be correlations between fracking and health risks, but inadequate scientific research has been done to prove fracking causes the problems, Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council told VICE News.

"There is a growing body of scientific research but so far studies haven't been completed yet as to why people who live near wells report health problems," Sinding told VICE News. 

Citing health concerns, Governor Andrew Cuomo approved a ban on fracking in New York. 

Related: Here's what fracking is doing to air quality

Eagleridge Energy, one of Denton's main fracking companies, declined to comment for this article, and Range Resources, another big fracking company, did not return requests for comment.

Cathy McMullen, a nurse in Denton who became active organizing for the ban, told VICE News Denton's situation has been uniquely dire, since the town had not had a gas administrator so the fire department had been charged with issuing fracking permits. 

"No other city in Texas has permitted their wells in this way," McMullen told VICE News. The approach had allowed wells to spring up overnight by schools, parks, and throughout much of the town.

Tim and Sandra Corter, Bush's neighbors who also voted for the ban, told VICE News that they — like Bush — had never learned fracking was entering their neighborhood until the trucks started showing up.

"A bright light shone in our bathroom all the time, and we just pretended it was a nightlight," Sandra told VICE News of the light that beamed from the fracking construction. She said there was noise "24-7" and vibrations that shook their pictures on the wall.

Now, the state's push to overrule Denton's vote is treating home owners like the Corters as second-class citizens, Hunter said. Her group had a meeting recently with Representative Phil King about his bill that would force towns to pay the state if they banned fracking, but he dismissed their concerns, she said.

"He was treating property owners like squatters and defending the rights of mineral owners," Hunter recalled.

King did not return requests for comment, but he has justified to local media that his bill would help avoid future court cases by clarifying the law.

But to many residents of Denton, they had no other option than to ban fracking after the industry's takeover of their community.

"It's frustrating that the state sees Denton as this renegade town," Hunter said. "But we were pushed into a wall. We had no other option."

Related: The end of fracking is closer than you think

Photos by Meredith Hoffman

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman