Texas Legislature Bans Municipal Fracking Bans

The Texas Legislature has responded to a voter referendum to ban fracking in Denton, Texas, by approving the “Denton Fracking Bill,” which would impose a ban on municipal fracking bans. It effectively squashes the vote in Denton against fracking.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) is expected to sign the legislation.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the processing of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at high pressure to break up or fracture shale rocks and release natural gas inside the rocks.

Anti-frackers have blamed the process for causing earthquakes and numerous other environmental, health and safety problems. Industry proponents say fracking is what has made U.S.-based companies strong players in the world’s energy markets.

The citizens of Denton, Texas, started this debate of just how homegrown fracking regulations should be, when they approved a ban on fracking in the community about 40 miles northwest of Dallas.

It was the first time any community anywhere in Texas had the nerve to go up against the state’s oil and natural gas industry — the state’s top jobs provider —not only to put this proposal on the ballot, but to also succeed so grandly. The margin of approval was 59 percent to 41 percent in the November 2014 election.

"I've seen the power of a grass-roots movement. I've seen the power of talking to my neighbors. I've seen the power of working together on a local level and really taking charge. This is a mandate from the people of Denton," Tara Linn Hunter told KDFW-TV while watching the returns come in with fellow supporters in Denton.

The Texas Oil & Gas Association and the Texas Land Commission went to court the next morning to block it.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson released a statement saying he not only thought the Denton fracking ban was unconstitutional, he also considered it to be a threat to the schoolchildren of Texas “who earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year on oil and gas production on Permanent School Fund lands.”

State Rep. Drew Darby (R) went to bat against the Denton fracking ban almost as quickly in the Texas House. And while he was at it, Darby figured he might as well make sure no town or city in Texas ever tried this again.

He argued in the preamble of HB 40 it was in the best interest of Texas not to have a hodgepodge of local regulations that would leave the oil and gas industry wondering where they can frack and where they can’t frack.

Darby also wrote that the oil and gas industry has been nothing but good for the Lone Star State.

The Texas Oil & Gas Association immediately came out in support of Darby’s legislation.

“HB 40 enjoys widespread support because the legislation provides cities with authority to reasonably regulate surface level oil and gas activities, while affirming that regulation of oil and gas operations like fracking and production is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the state. HB 40 is a fair bill that balances local control and property rights,” said Todd Staples, the president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

“Smart oil and natural gas policy is essential for safety, for jobs, for Texas. In addition to its long track record for safe and responsible production, the oil and natural gas industry pays billions of dollars in annual state and local taxes that directly fund our schools, roads and essential services,” Staples added.

He also pointed to the importance of the oil and gas industry to the Texas economy.

“With 40 percent of the Texas economy and 2 million jobs supported by the oil and natural gas industry, striking the right balance with carefully constructed policy has never been more important,” Staples said.

If anyone in Texas doubted the importance of oil and natural gas to their state’s economy, they had only to read a Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report released in December 2014. It showed Texas is the third-largest producer of natural gas in the world.

Texas is also the fifth-largest producer of crude oil in the world, pumping more crude than Iraq.

But opponents, like Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, called Darby’s ban on fracking bans an assault on local control, public health, and safety.

"Local ordinances are often the last line of defense for Texans beleaguered by dirty drilling,” Metzger said. “Now, we are all at the mercy of state regulators who routinely deny science, disregard public health, and do whatever Big Oil tells them to.”

“Oil and gas companies donated $5.5 million to the campaigns of legislators in the last elections, and clearly they got their money's worth,” he added.

When Rep. Darby made some changes to his original proposal, Texas Municipal League executive director Bennett Sandlin admitted that while the new version was an improvement, it still was not perfect.

However, he wrote in a statement on the TML website the Municipal League could live with it.

“Some areas of regulation, especially those related to subsurface activity, would be preempted by the substitute. So would outright city-wide bans on oil and drilling or fracking. But here’s the essential point: better than 80% of what most cities regulate under current ordinances will be protected under the committee substitute.”

The changes Darby made were not enough to satisfy Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

“I appreciate the beneficial changes that have been made to the bill in recent weeks, but my fear is we end up with a cookie-cutter approach that does not take into consideration individual city needs and differences,” he said. “That’s why these decisions ought to be left in the hands of local leaders who are best positioned to do what's best for their constituents."

Drew Darby told the American-Statesman that the point Mayor Rawlings made is another reason his legislation is needed in Texas, because it “once and for all clarifies (the) power of this legislature.”