Voters in Denton, Texas approved on Tuesday a ban on horizontal, hydraulic fracturing, sending a message to the fossil fuel sector that concerns about air and water quality in some areas of the country may be trumping concerns about the economy — even in the region where fracking was pioneered.
More than 58 percent of voters in Denton, a town of 123,000 people located northwest of Dallas, supported the ban. Denton sits atop the Barnett shale formation, where the technique of fracking was first used commercially. Companies operating in the Barnett now produce more than 4,000 barrels of oil and nearly five billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. Denton, alone, is dotted with roughly 270 gas wells.
"If this place in the heart of the oil and gas industry can't live with fracking, then who can," said Bruce Baizel, energy program director at Earthworks.
The Denton Drilling Awareness Group, headed by local nurse named Cathy McMullen, collected 2,000 signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot, after the city council refused to vote on a ban.
Industry groups and some state politicians have promised to fight the ban in the courts, saying that localities lack the authority to issue such prohibitions. Denton Mayor Chris Watts said he would defend the ban against these legal challenges.
Proponents of the ban were outspent by over 10-1. Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy raised about $700,000 to oppose the ban, with donations coming from Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, EnerVest, XTO Energy and Devon Energy, while the Frack Free Denton Group raised about $75,000.
"At the end of the day," Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund told VICE News, "companies need to find ways to work constructively with local officials, and local officials with companies, to protect the legitimate interests of local communities in protecting the environment, public health, and quality of life."
'The American people don't want restrictions to limit this American energy renaissance.'
Denton isn't the only locality in the heart of America's boom in fossil fuel production to reject oil and gas fracking. In Ohio, a state that's seen an eight-fold increase in natural gas production from the Utica shale formation since 2012, the southeastern city of Athens approved its own ban. Seventy-eight percent of voters supported the measure. A similar ban in the town of 25,000 was defeated last year.
"People in local communities, we had the legislature take local control away," Alison Auciello, Ohio organizer for Food and Water Watch, told VICE News. "This measure was a way for them to assert their authority again, and in Athens they decided: 'No,' we don't want fracking."
Three other Ohio cities took up prohibitions — Gates Mills, Kent, and Youngstown. Voters in each of those localities rejected the bans. Previously, Broadview Heights, Mansfield, Oberlin, and Yellow Springs, Ohio have approved restrictions on oil and natural gas fracking.
California's Mendocino and San Benito counties passed bans, while Santa Barbara County rejected one. While no fracking activities are currently underway in any of those counties, all three sit atop the petroleum-rich Monterey shale formation, estimated to hold more than 10 billion barrels of oil.
"It's still on the table that the Monterey is a significant resource," Bruce Luyendyk, a geologist and retired professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and supporter of the fracking ban, said. "I think that's very much the issue for oil companies."
But with Republicans winning control of both houses of Congress, fossil fuel industry groups are batting down the significance of the bans.
"I think what you see in the [election results] is the American people don't want restrictions to limit this American energy renaissance," Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. "It's really a question of education, reaching out to the American people. They get it."
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