Land commissioner weighs in on ban

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Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson believes Denton’s proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing would cost the children of Texas.

Patterson wrote a letter to Mayor Chris Watts objecting to the ban prior to Tuesday’s public hearing. But the mayor’s office didn’t receive the letter until late Thursday afternoon, after news of the letter was reported through media outlets.

The Texas General Land Office oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund, a $26 billion trust funded primarily from oil and gas development that helps finance school construction projects and textbooks. In the letter, Patterson wrote that his office would “pursue any available remedy” to protect the state’s rights to its minerals should Denton adopt the ban.

Patterson is the first state official to rattle a saber over the citizen-driven initiative for a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the city limits.

Jim Suydam, spokesman for the land office, said that there are some state-owned minerals in the city, primarily in the rights-of-way of state and county roads, that could be affected by the ban.

“The commissioner takes his fiduciary responsibility to the fund very seriously,” Suydam said.

In the letter, Patterson also writes that a ban may not only be unconstitutional but may also have unintended consequences.

Residents will be heading to the polls in November to decide the fate of a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing in the Denton city limits. Nearly 2,000 registered voters signed the petition after residents organized the initiative drive this spring. The Denton City Council called the initiative election earlier this week after one of the city’s largest-ever public hearings.

The commissioner does not represent the fiduciary interests of other state government lands in the city, such as the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University or the Denton State Supported Living Center. If those institutions took issue with Denton’s proposed ban, they would have to weigh in themselves, Suydam said.

Watts questioned whether any state agency or elected office could claim that city ordinances affect them. UNT, TWU and the living center answer to the state fire marshal, not the city’s, for example.

“We can’t tell UNT when to mow the lawn,” Watts said.

According to county officials, Denton County maintains about 50 road segments in that part of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction that is subject to some of its municipal authority.

County Commissioner Hugh Coleman, a practicing attorney, called the argument for the state’s minerals under state and county roads “novel.”

“Someone stayed up late to think of that one,” Coleman said.

In his letter to the city, Patterson acknowledged that municipal authority granted under the Texas Local Government Code does not apply to state lands.

Patterson ran an unsuccessful campaign to succeed Greg Abbott as the attorney general. His term ends in January.

George P. Bush is the Republican Party nominee to replace him. He faces opposition from Democrat John Cook and Libertarian Justin Knight.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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