The first round of campaign finance reports show the proposition against hydraulic fracturing inside the city is already the most expensive campaign in Denton’s history, with both sides vying for the right to call themselves “grass roots.”
Two specific-purpose committees, one formed for and another against the ban, filed reports with the city secretary showing more than $280,000 raised since the City Council voted to put the proposition on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The city has not seen six-figure spending since 2008, when Mark Burroughs unseated Perry McNeill as mayor and the two spent more than $120,000 between them in the fight.
Opponents to the ban on fracking have far outraised and outspent proponents in the first weeks of the campaign. In a press release, Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy called its $231,000 in contributions “grass roots,” since the three energy companies that contributed $75,000 each — Devon Energy of Oklahoma, XTO Energy of Fort Worth and EnerVest of Houston — all pay taxes on their gas wells inside the city limits.
According to city records, Devon has 61 gas wells in the city limits, EnerVest has 33 and XTO has two.
The Texas Alliance of Energy Producers in Wichita Falls also gave $5,000 to the opposition campaign. None of the city’s other largest producers are listed among that group’s membership, including EagleRidge Energy (82 wells), Vantage (36) and Legend (23).
Bobby Jones of Denton Taxpayers said recent resolutions opposing the ban by the Denton Chamber of Commerce, the Denton County Republican Party and the North Texas State Fair Association show that as people study the issues, they oppose the ban.
“It’s solid,” Jones said, adding, “We’re going to change what people are thinking. It’s been pretty one-sided.”
Jones serves on the fair association’s board of directors.
He also characterized the ban’s support as coming from “extreme liberal fringe groups out of Washington, D.C.”
Jones and Randy Sorrells, principals of Denton Taxpayers, gave $750 to the campaign between them. Of the $1,060 in individual contributions listed, theirs were the only ones with Denton addresses.
Denton Taxpayers has spent about $186,000 so far — all with the Eppstein Group, a public relations firm in Fort Worth — on advertising, direct mail, signs and other campaign materials.
About $14,000 of the nearly $51,000 in contributions reported by Pass the Ban, a specific-purpose committee supporting the proposition to ban fracking, came from about 45 people with Denton addresses. Council member Dalton Gregory donated $250 of his political fund to Pass the Ban.
Carol Soph, co-treasurer of Pass the Ban, said the group is happy to have the help of so many residents.
“We’re proud of the contributions because of their grass roots,” Soph said.
Her husband, Ed Soph, who also is co-treasurer, said he was angry about the amount of money the energy companies are spending.
“That $225,000 the companies contributed is nothing more than an investment in the destruction of Denton,” he said.
The group also reported spending $8,500 on the campaign, primarily through advertising and events.
Nearly $30,000 of the contributions to Pass the Ban came as in-kind contributions from Earthworks, a national nonprofit environmental group. Earthworks contributed T-shirts, billboards, yard signs, a website and other campaign materials.
Earthworks got involved when the Denton Drilling Advisory Group asked for help, according to Alan Septoff, spokesman for Earthworks. It was Denton DAG that organized and delivered the petition forcing a vote on the ban earlier this year.
Earthworks has helped many cities and citizens groups since it was formed in Wyoming 25 years ago, when residents there were having trouble with mining companies, he said.
Earthworks set up a donation page to help Denton residents with the frack ban initiative, Septoff said.
Since then, Earthworks has received about $60,000 in donations. More than 95 percent of the money has come from Denton residents. Earthworks plans to spend it all in Denton, he said.
However, the group will not reveal donor names, as they are anonymous contributions, he said. While that isn’t the purpose of the page, Septoff acknowledged that anonymity was the net effect.
“Some residents might not want to be identified as donating to a cause in opposition to oil and gas,” Septoff said. “They have a well-deserved reputation of not playing nicely and going after people personally.”
According to documents obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle, the Eppstein Group made an open records request for a copy of the initiative petition. The petition contains the names and addresses of all the nearly 2,000 Denton voters who signed it.
State and federal campaign finance laws allow other media buys that appear to be designed to influence the election and avoid full disclosure.
A website launched at the time of the proposition election vote in July, www.northtexansfornaturalgas.com, includes an information page on the Denton ban. Devon Energy, EnerVest, EOG Resources and XTO Energy have been listed on the website as its founders. That campaign has a wide social media presence as well as television advertising encouraging people to visit the website.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.
IN OTHER ACTION
During its regular meeting Tuesday, the Denton City Council also:
• Extended legal services agreements with Constangy, Brooks and Smith for an ongoing employee discrimination case and with Terry Morgan & Associates for gas well regulation and litigation.
• Amended an agreement with CDM Smith for engineering design services for the Pecan Creek Water Reclamation Plant to $354,375.
• Awarded three-year contracts to Gardner Telecommunications for boring services for $1.5 million, to Brandt Companies for mechanical services for $4.5 million, to HD Supply Power Solutions for electrical supplies for $4.3 million, to Techline for transformers for $4.5 million, to ABB HVIT for transformers for $350,000 and to Premier Junior Golf Development for golf contractor services for the parks department for $300,000.
• Approved the selection of Karmien Brown and the expenditure of $26,000 for a new public art piece in North Lakes Park.
• Authorized the city manager to offer $166,584 for about 5 acres on South Fort Worth Drive for the Hickory Creek Detention Facility and the expansion of Denton Municipal Electric facilities.
— Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe