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Group’s drive raises concern

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

City officials: Initiative against fracking could clash with state law

Some Denton City Council members see a likely collision between state law and a citizens initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing inside the city.

A group of Denton residents will launch a petition drive at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Sweetwater Grill & Tavern. Beginning that day, the group will have 180 days to gather 571 signatures to force the council’s consideration of a fracking ban.

The oil and gas industry has seen a surge in production after bringing fracking — pressure-pumping a chemical-and-water solution to extract oil and gas — to wells drilled in rock formations such as the Barnett Shale, in western Denton and Denton County.

Council member Jim Engelbrecht, whose district is among the most affected by a recent campaign to reinvigorate some of the 270 old wells in Denton, said he can understand why residents are frustrated.

He shares their frustration. He’s voted twice against the “standstill agreement” that has allowed EagleRidge Energy to continue drilling and fracking wells in neighborhoods in his district while city leaders try to negotiate with the company.

The city dropped a lawsuit it filed trying to enforce its ordinance, and has been negotiating with the company under a standstill agreement set to expire March 4.

Council member Kevin Roden said he was certain the citizens group would get the required number of signatures.

“Citizens don’t think their concerns are being heard,” Roden said.

But he thought it was too early to speculate on what the future holds. He said he hopes the initiative highlights the city’s concerns about oil and gas development and provides the impetus for other solutions.

Council member James King agreed, adding that the initiative process is an important option for residents, but he sees a clash between local will and state law.

“I don’t know what would happen to our city in Texas,” King said. “I have no idea.”

Council member Dalton Gregory said he would have pushed for a ban on fracking when the city was revising its oil and gas development ordinance if he thought it would have worked.

The initiative has a small chance to be successful, he said, but he was concerned that defending it could get expensive for the city.

Colorado state officials joined a lawsuit by a trade association against the city of Longmont after it banned fracking. Residents in other Colorado cities have since passed long-term, local moratoriums, and groups are organizing a statewide initiative to affirm the authority of local governments to make such regulations.

Cory Pomeroy, vice president and general counsel for the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said city officials are wise to question whether a ban would be legally defensible.

“Several companies are currently operating in Denton with permits issued by the city,” Pomeroy wrote in an e-mail. “A post-development ban would compromise valid agreements between oil and natural gas operators and the city of Denton.”

Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council and one of industry’s representatives on the task force that helped develop Denton’s oil and gas ordinance, said that, at first read, he saw the citizens’ attempt not as a ban on drilling but on hydraulic fracturing.

“It’s been a legal activity,” Ireland said. “I think a ban on hydraulic fracturing is beyond the authority of a municipality.”

Ireland said in Texas the regulation of well completion techniques, of which fracking is one, lies with the Texas Railroad Commission.

Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, said in a prepared statement that royalty owners are deprived of income in places where people protest oil and gas development.

“We are experiencing an energy revolution in the state of Texas and across the country, which is why we must capitalize on the opportunity that has been presented to us in a responsible and transparent manner,” he wrote. “Anyone can find the truth and easily dispel the myths being presented by some.”

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