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Fracking battle in Texas not over

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

Protesters picket well site in Denton where fracturing has resumed

The fight over fracking in Texas cities is continuing. Anti-fracking activists are searching for a legal strategy to challenge the constitutionality of a new state law that appears to overturn the frack ban that Denton voters passed last November.

On a second front, protesters picketed a Denton well site where hydraulic fracturing has resumed. And others are planning an anti-fracking rally on the City Hall lawn in the near future.

About a dozen protesters blocked the gate at a Denton natural gas well site for a short time Wednesday morning, stepping aside only after Denton police asked them to do so.

Many of the people who blocked the Vantage Energy well site on Denton’s west side had volunteered in the citizens campaign to ban fracking in the city, said Tara Linn Hunter.

“They worked very hard,” said Hunter, who was the campaign’s volunteer coordinator. “They are very angry.”

Vantage was the first operator to frack in Denton after the state effectively nullified the local citizens’ initiative last week with the passage of House Bill 40.

Some activists have speculated, including on social media, that the new state law may not be challenged first by Denton, but by another Texas city affected by HB 40.

In addition to nullifying Denton’s ban, HB 40 greatly limits the ability of Texas cities and other local governments to write local rules pertaining to the oil and gas industry. Many legal experts call the new law sweeping and unprecedented.

In a prepared statement, Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said “the clarity and consistency” of the new law would keep communities safe.

“We are confident in House Bill 40 because lawmakers were thoughtful and deliberate in stipulating, more clearly than ever, appropriate roles for the state and local governments in regulating the oil and natural gas industry,” Staples said.

The association and the Texas General Land Office sued to block the ban the day after Denton voters overwhelmingly approved it in November. However, a Denton district judge put both cases on hold soon after they were filed, citing the pending legislation.

Denton resident Cathy McMullen said she recently stepped down as president of the Denton Drilling Advisory Group to work with anti-fracking activists in other cities, including those in the vast Eagle Ford Shale gas formation in South Texas.

In Laredo, for example, residents of the Green Ranch subdivision turned to their city officials for help after an energy company requested permits to drill two wells in their neighborhood, according to Laredo media outlets.

HB 40 became law May 18, before that matter could be settled. The Laredo City Council was scheduled to vote on the permits Wednesday night.

Wednesday morning, Denton protesters stood at the gate as Vantage workers arrived. Hunter said the workers left and then Denton police arrived. Officers gave the protesters a deadline to move away from the gate or risk being arrested.

Everyone eventually stepped aside, Hunter said. They held signs that said “Our Homes, Our Rules!” and “Gas Wells Don’t Belong in Neighborhoods” and stood by the well site until about 10 a.m.

A small mobile home community sits across the street from the well site, but the homes are outside Denton city limits.

No protesters were arrested, according to Denton police spokesman Officer Orlando Hinojosa.

Denton Mayor Chris Watts said Wednesday that he is not aware of any plans to develop a legal challenge to HB 40. Nor has Denton been formally approached about joining an alliance for a challenge, he said.

But should the city be asked to join such an alliance, the City Council would have to discuss it, Watts said.

In the past four years, Denton spent $920,000 writing rules to accommodate oil and gas development and to protect public health and safety, city officials said.

Last year, before voters passed the frack ban, Vantage Energy officials said publicly they were willing to work with the city under new rules on well setbacks from neighborhoods.

At least two operators, EagleRidge Energy and Devon Energy, claimed they weren’t subject to those rules. They claimed that by holding old permits their rights to drill under old rules were vested.

The so-called vested rights claim stems from a Texas Supreme Court decision in a long-running court case between the city of Austin and a hotel developer that won the right to build a facility because it had obtained permits years earlier. Whether the claim can be extended to oil and gas development has not been challenged in a Texas court or addressed by the Legislature.


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