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No ruling given in fracking case

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

AUSTIN — A Travis County judge heard arguments Wednesday morning on whether the state’s case against Denton’s ban on hydraulic fracturing should be moved to Denton County.

After Tim Sulak, district judge for the 353rd District Court, heard about 45 minutes of arguments from both sides, he made no ruling on whether to change the venue of the case and gave no announcement about when to expect the ruling.

Denton voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition in November that banned fracking in the city limits. Within hours after the polls closed, both the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office sued the city to block the ban.

The association, a trade group for the oil and gas industry reinvigorated by technological advances involved in fracking, filed suit in Denton County. But the land office filed in Travis County.

The Texas General Land Office is the agency responsible for public lands and the development of oil and gas on those lands.

The ban has been in effect since December.

Arguments over whether the state’s case belonged in Denton County or Travis County pivoted on a request for injunctive relief from the ban. Originally, the land office asked that the city be ordered to lift the ban if it was found to be unconstitutional. In a last-minute move Tuesday, the state withdrew that request.

Ken Slavin, one of the state’s attorneys, said that if the court sided with the state he believed the city would comply and that injunctive relief wasn’t needed.

With that argument out of the case, the proper place to try the case was in Austin, Slavin said.

“Denton has passed an ordinance that reaches into Travis County, and that’s why we’re here,” Slavin said.

Arguing for the city, Joe de la Fuente told the judge that the last-minute move pulling back the state’s claim for injunctive relief showed that the case belonged in Denton County.

He argued that the judge should make a change-of-venue ruling not on the state’s amended claim but on the original one.

“They know the merits of a winning argument,” de la Fuente said.

He added that if the judge did rule using the amended claim, the city would be back with another request for change of venue on the amended claim.

The judge opened the hearing with the statement that he knew whichever way he ruled the other side would “believe he erred” and seek an appeal on his ruling.

He was mindful, he said, that could affect how the case proceeded.

Denton District Judge Sherry Shipman put a hold on the oil and gas association’s case, de la Fuente said. There was a possibility that, because the state and the association were making similar claims, the two lawsuits could be consolidated.

“There’s a timeout on the field in Denton,” de la Fuente said, arguing for the need to expedite the matter.

Afterward, Slavin said people were passionate about the issue and perhaps the Texas Legislature would take note and work on the problem.

Sulak also accepted petitions from the Denton Drilling Advisory Group and Earthworks to become co-defendants with the city in the case. The two groups helping to represent Denton voters already have been accepted in Denton County as co-defendants in the association’s case against the ban.

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