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David Minton

Frack check

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

Issues raised in fliers get examination

Mailers, fliers and door hangers about the proposition to ban hydraulic fracturing in the city limits have papered Denton homes in recent weeks.

Through Sept. 25, opponents to the proposition, funded primarily by energy companies, spent about $186,000 against the so-called frack ban, according to campaign finance reports.

That includes the cost of several mailings to Denton voters. Proponents of the ban spent $8,500 so far, and received another $30,000 in in-kind contributions. They also used direct mail to send out a flier this week supporting the ban.

The materials contain many claims about the proposition and what it could mean for the city. The following is an examination of some of those claims:

Denton’s proposition is a ban on drilling.

The proposition does not ban drilling. The proposition would ban hydraulic fracturing, a new completion technique for oil and gas wells that is separate from drilling. Energy companies have drilled in this area for decades with varying degrees of success, recovering oil and gas.

Because fracking has made these wells more productive, including older vertical wells reworked as horizontal wells, opponents of the ban claim a ban on fracking functions like a ban on drilling.

Fracking is under-regulated.

Unlike many other states that have experienced a shale oil or gas development boom, Texas has had oil and gas regulations in place for years. According to a recent study and report from the Resources for the Future, a national, nonpartisan think tank, even Texas has struggled to keep up with shale development.

The Texas Legislature recently required the disclosure of chemicals through FracFocus.org, an industry-sponsored website. While hailed at the time, few energy companies disclosed all the chemicals being used, ultimately diminishing the value of the website’s data.

Recently, the Texas Railroad Commission hired a seismologist who helped the agency draft new rules meant to address the increase in earthquakes near production fields in Texas and Oklahoma.

A ban will cost the Denton school district, Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas millions in lost natural gas revenue.

TWU had one natural gas well on its golf course that never produced. It was plugged this year.

Not all Denton school district property is located in the shale region. School officials have not negotiated any leases since gas wells were drilled adjacent to Guyer High School and McNair Elementary School years ago. Companies have approached the district about drilling on school property, but the talks ended after district officials made it clear they would control when and where the companies drilled wells and placed pipelines. The school district has received $68,919 in royalty income so far this year.

UNT has two leases, including the gas wells by Apogee Stadium, which were expanded and fracked last year, that have paid $1,257,727 in royalties so far this year.

Denton school district and UNT wells will continue to receive the royalties through the life of the wells, but no new wells could be fracked.

A ban on fracking takes away people’s mineral rights.

Texas has few precedents in this area of law, according to municipal attorney Terry Welch. Unlike other property rights cases where it might be clear and easy to measure what is lost, oil or gas isn’t lost in a drill-but-no-frack scenario, he said.

Another local attorney recently filed a lawsuit making just that claim against the city on behalf of his leasing interests and his family. The city successfully petitioned to move Arsenal Minerals et al vs. City of Denton to a federal court.

A ban will cost the city millions in lawsuits.

People and businesses frequently challenge a city’s rules in court. Most recently, payday lenders sued the city after it passed an ordinance clamping down on predatory lending practices. In another case, property owners on Bonnie Brae Street sued over the installation of larger utility poles on their land.

With some extraordinary exceptions, legal fees typically don’t reach the million-dollar mark before the parties settle their differences or a decision is reached.

Fracking does little for the local economy.

The city’s parks department and airport receive royalties from leases. Denton Enterprise Airport budgeted for $1.1 million in gas well royalties this year. The airport is using the royalty money to build new hangars and increase its revenue through occupancy leases in place of royalties.

Mineral valuations comprise about 1 percent of the city’s $7.7 billion tax base, which is expected to bring about $675,000 in taxes to the general fund this year.

A study commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and conducted by the Waco-based Perryman Group estimated the frack ban would cost $251.4 million in lost gross domestic product and bring 2,077 lost “person-years” of employment over 10 years. In other words, about 208 jobs would be lost among the 65,000 people who are employed in Denton.

There is no publicly available data for the city of Denton’s gross domestic product, but federal officials put the 13 counties of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s GDP at about $420.3 billion, of which Perryman estimates $11.8 billion comes from the oil and gas industry.

A ban on fracking is illegal.

Although former Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips, who has been retained by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said the ban is likely unconstitutional, that question has yet to be tried.

Some experts in municipal law argue the opposite. Under Texas law, they say, home-rule cities have the right to make rules protecting people’s health and safety.

Recently, state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he would introduce legislation to prohibit Texas cities from banning fracking during the next legislative session. In the past, the Texas Municipal League has vigorously opposed legislation that limits the regulatory rights of cities.

Denton has the worst air quality in Texas.

Ozone monitors at Denton Enterprise Airport routinely record the highest levels in the state in recent years, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Recent research has shown that the region’s high ozone levels have persisted, particularly in the Barnett Shale production areas of North Texas, as air quality has improved elsewhere in the country.

In addition, air quality and ozone levels have deteriorated in other parts of the country where fracking has been introduced, including rural areas with no other industry. Exposure to high ozone levels has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Officials with the TCEQ say that the region’s air quality has improved over the last 20 years and the agency has a plan for the region’s air to be compliant with federal standards by 2018.

Fracking is uniquely invasive.

Many cities in the Barnett Shale have allowed fracking in residential areas in recent years by making allowances through their zoning or through a specific permitting process. No other industry or business category has been able to secure such broad exceptions where a city’s planning authority has typically trumped private property rights.

In addition, Denton’s case is thought to be extraordinary in that the fire department had been the local permitting authority for many years.

At least two companies, Devon and EagleRidge Energy, have claimed their rights under those old permits from the fire department are vested for wide swaths of land on the city’s west side. As a result, new wells have been drilled in Denton neighborhoods just a few hundred feet from many new homes.

Fracking is dangerous.

Blowouts are rare but can be catastrophic. A blowout in 2005 near the town of Brad in Palo Pinto County during the early years of fracking in the Barnett Shale ignited, blowing a 750-foot-wide crater in the ground and burning for nearly a week. No one was reported seriously injured in the accident.

In April 2013, an EagleRidge gas well blew out near Denton Enterprise Airport. While the well did not ignite, the operator did not regain control of the well for 14 hours. Nearby homes were evacuated and a no-fly zone was created around the airport. No injuries were reported.

Fracking is bad news for property rights.

Statewide elected officials have acknowledged in many public meetings that the property rights of mineral owners are dominant over the property rights of surface owners in Texas.

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