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Groups seek to exit suits

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

DAG, Earthworks file motions asking to be dismissed from lawsuits

Local activists and the national nonprofit that helped them with the campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing in Denton have asked to be dismissed from a pair of lawsuits against the city.

The Denton Drilling Advisory Group and Earthworks intervened in the lawsuits last year. They asked to stand with the city as co-defendants against the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

Representatives from both groups said they wanted to help defend the ban. But on Wednesday, they jointly filed motions of nonsuit, asking the judges to allow them to exit the cases.

Neither Earthworks nor Denton DAG offered a statement on the latest maneuver in a battle that has garnered international attention.

Last week, Denton DAG representatives spoke in favor of a City Council decision to repeal the ban, calling it a “strategic retreat” in light of the lawsuits. The repeal remains unpopular with many Denton voters who overwhelming approved the ban in November.

Even though the state and industry filed suit to block the ban the day after the election, the Texas Legislature effectively nullified the ban with House Bill 40.

This week, the city’s lobbyists told the City Council that HB 40 was crafted by two prominent industry attorneys.

Both the state and industry filed amended pleadings and made new claims against the city under HB 40.

Negotiations to settle the lawsuits in light of HB 40 failed. Moreover, the industry suggested in its pleadings that it may seek attorneys’ fees from the defendants — not only the city but also Denton DAG and Earthworks.

The cases are in different Denton district courts. Both judges would need to approve the request for the groups to be free of the cases.

Attorneys for the state and the industry did not return requests for comment.

Regardless of the outcome for Denton DAG and Earthworks, the lawsuits against the city remain active.

City Attorney Anita Burgess said her office and the outside counsel continue to work on the city’s response to the latest petitions, which seek a quick decision from the judges.

Some critics of the high-profile cases say Denton has spent too much money on litigation and “de facto” bans on drilling. The Denton Record-Chronicle recently filed an open records request with the city for attorney invoices.

The newspaper made a similar request and received the information for a 2012 story on outside legal expenses for local oil and gas production rules.

The current request is being reviewed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

In the interim, the city released a summary of expenses from fiscal year 2010 to the present that showed the city spent about $196,000 in outside counsel in the two lawsuits.

The city spent another $25,318.35 on a mineral rights lawsuit filed by a local attorney who has since been disbarred.

According to the summary, the city has spent about $600,000 trying to cure its local rules after challenges made by EagleRidge Energy.

The company drilled within or adjacent to many southwest Denton neighborhoods and the University of North Texas campus, claiming its old permits gave the company the right to drill under old rules.

Those claims, known as “vested rights,” have not been addressed by the Legislature or tested in Texas courts.

Since fiscal year 2010, the city spent another $100,000 on outside attorneys and experts on other drilling, production and land use matters.

Hearings have not been scheduled in either lawsuit.

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

COST OF LITIGATION

Denton has spent $221,578.84 on outside legal help so far this fiscal year. Here’s the breakdown:

Arsenal Minerals & Royalty vs. Denton — $25,318.35

Texas General Land Office vs. Denton — $75,008.10

Texas Oil and Gas Association vs. Denton — $121,252.39

SOURCE: City of Denton