Volunteers delivered 1,936 signatures to City Hall on Wednesday afternoon — or about 81 percent of the turnout in the last municipal election — on a petition to force a vote on whether to ban hydraulic fracturing inside the Denton city limits.
The delivery came just hours after the Denton City Council voted Tuesday night to put another moratorium in place on new applications for gas well permits or amendments to current permits.
The moratorium was approved Tuesday just before midnight when a “standstill” agreement was set to expire with EagleRidge Energy, which has been in a dispute with the city over its operations near several neighborhoods.
Officials with EagleRidge Energy, while surprised by the Denton City Council’s decision to initiate a moratorium on new gas wells, said the company remains supportive of the city’s efforts to assure the health and safety of the citizens of Denton.
Eagleridge officials also said they look forward to continuing to work with the city to develop a clearer, more predictable and useful gas well ordinance. The company is also committed to being environmentally responsible and points to the fact that it has been in compliance with state and local government standards relating to safe drilling, fracing and ongoing operations and that it has no violations, according to company officials.
Officials with the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council could not be reached for comment and Devon Energy declined to comment.
Ed and Carol Soph were among the small group that descended on City Hall as television cameras rolled. Under the city’s home rule charter, the group had to deliver enough valid signatures to represent 25 percent of the 2,385 ballots cast in the city’s last election, or 596 signatures.
Denton resident Cathy McMullen, who also helped organize the drive, said the signatures represented people of all political stripes in the city.
City Secretary Jennifer Walters has 20 days to verify at least 596 of those 1,936 signatures. She then must present the petition to the City Council at a regular meeting. Walters said that could come as soon as June 3 or June 17.
The City Council then has 60 days to take final action on the petition, after holding at least one public hearing, and either accept or deny the ordinance that was part of the initiative. If the City Council denies the ordinance, the matter would go to the voters, likely in November.
If voters approve the ban, it would be the first of its kind in Texas but not in the nation. Late last month, a New York attorney, Helen Slottje, received the Goldman Prize, the nation’s largest environmental award, for her work helping more than 170 communities in New York enact fracking bans.
When making the motion for the moratorium Tuesday night, council member Dalton Gregory cited several areas for the city to rework its ordinance, including shoring up insurance and bonding provisions, encouraging the clustering of wells in order to open up land use for future development, and requiring disclosure of gas well locations to real estate and home buyers.
The moratorium is in place until midnight Sept. 9 and could be renewed, as the city did with a previous moratorium through much of 2011 and 2012.
City officials said Wednesday that Vantage Energy has submitted permit applications for three gas wells on a pad site at U.S. Highway 380 and Nail Road. The city has approved up to six wells at this site and those will not be affected by the moratorium, officials said. Drilling is expected in the next few weeks.
The city has no other permit applications pending nor has it received any notices of impending drilling. Officials cautioned, however, that the moratorium does not affect operations at existing sites, including the possibility that small rigs could be brought in for workovers.
If a resident has a question whether there is work being done at a site in violation of the moratorium, the person is encouraged to call the Gas Well Inspections Division, 940-349-8372, or the city’s new gas well hotline, 940-349-8GAS.
For local volunteers, the campaign for a ban on fracking is shifting gears, Ed Soph said.
“We’ll take a very short breath and then we will organize a committee to canvass the city, to get a volunteer army to mount a campaign to get out the vote,” he said, adding, “We’re thoroughly aware of what industry can do — and the money to do it with.”
The longtime Denton residents have been involved in other environmental battles in the city, including the permitting of United Copper.
Carol Soph said that while the concerns have always been the same — the health and safety of residents — this battle is different because the city has already permitted so many wells. A total of 275 wells are in the city limits and another 212 are in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.
The petition may be one of the largest ever delivered to the city. In late 2010, volunteers delivered a petition meant to overturn a utility credit and collection policy with 900 signatures that the city secretary could not certify.
In 1981, volunteers delivered a petition with 823 signatures, forcing the first of two referendums — both of which failed — to keep clubs and bars open past midnight.
Staff writer Dianna Hunt contributed to this report.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.