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Democrat sees land office as ‘bully pulpit’

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

Candidate touches on drilling issues in campaign stop

Denton residents are taking an increasing interest in lower-profile races on the statewide ballot as the fight over the city’s right to regulate oil and gas development enters a new arena.

The Democratic Party’s candidate for state land commissioner made a campaign stop in Denton less than a week after the current land commissioner, Jerry Patterson, sent a letter to City Hall about the proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing.

About two dozen residents went to hear John Cook, the former mayor of El Paso, speak, sing and play a little guitar at Banter Bistro on Wednesday evening.

During a question-and-answer session that followed his talk, residents asked whether the state land commissioner had the authority to do as Patterson had all but threatened to do: sue the city if voters pass a ban on fracking in November.

The land commissioner serves as trustee for the Texas Permanent School Fund. The $26 billion trust gets most of its money from oil and gas development on public lands. The fund helps finance school construction projects and textbooks. Patterson wrote that his office would “pursue any available remedy” to protect the state’s rights to its minerals should Denton adopt the ban.

Cook told the crowd that he believed the land commissioner could sue the city. But in this case and similar cases, “the state is abusing its authority against the people,” Cook said.

Patterson’s term ends in January. George P. Bush is the Republican Party’s nominee for the office. Justin Knight is the Libertarian candidate. Neither Bush’s nor Knight’s campaigns returned messages requesting comment on Patterson’s letter.

Cook called for the state to require full disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and a ban on using chemicals that are known carcinogens. He also called for an end to flaring and for the state to better control disposal wells, which have been linked to earthquakes.

The land commissioner doesn’t have the authority to make such regulations, he said.

“But the land commissioner has a bully pulpit to influence,” Cook said.

Resident Rhonda Love, who helped circulate the petition that got the fracking ban on the November ballot, went to see Cook during his campaign stop. She made a point to not wear her “Frack Free Denton” T-shirt, even though several people at the event did.

“We’re keeping this [‘Pass the Ban’ campaign] nonpartisan,” Love said.

Before the Barnett Shale drilling boom, voters showed less interest in statewide offices such as land commissioner and railroad commissioner. The Texas Railroad Commission’s three elected commissioners serve as chief regulators of the oil and gas industry.

During the 2004 general election, for example, 6 percent of Denton County voters who cast ballots for president and senator didn’t vote at all for railroad commissioner. But in 2012, only 4 percent of voters failed to make a choice in that race.

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