In Denton, Texas, a college town north of Dallas that sits atop the Barnett Shale formation, the fight over a referendum banning fracking within city limits is in the final stretch.
The local ballot initiative has global implications, with the energy sector watching closely.
The turmoil in Denton reflects a growing national debate between those concerned with health and quality of life issues, and others who claim the fracking industry is America’s answer to economic growth and energy independence.
But it is local governments’ right to invoke home rule that worries the energy sector. Home rule empowers a local municipality to control zoning ordinances by trumping state rules. And home rule could jeopardize the fracking industry’s unchecked expansion in America.
The Bush family lives between two fracking sites. ©2014 Julie Dermansky
At a July 15th meeting, the council listened to public comments for over eight hours. A letter written by Railroad Commissioner Barry T. Smitherman suggested Russian influences could be involved in the fight for the ban. Denton residents leading the fight mocked the McCarthy-esque allegation, joking about waiting for their checks. The vote was 5 to 2 against the ban.
When the ban failed to pass, it became a referendum on this November’s ballot, as mandated by the city charter.
Denton Councilman Kevin Roden had hoped the council would take the lead by approving a ban. He wanted to spare his constituents the dirty fight that has ensued. Given that most of the people who spoke in opposition to the ban at the council meeting were from out of town, he worried about outside interests influencing the discussion.
His worry has turned out to be warranted. Denton has become a battleground, pitting residents supporting the ban against the oil and gas industry and mineral owners who, for the most part, live outside the city. Two members of the Drilling Awareness Group have received death threats that have been reported to authorities. And fracking enthusiasts are outspending those for the ban by almost five to one so far.
Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, a group formed to fight the ban, received $231,000 in donations by the end of September. Only $750 came from Denton, while the rest came from people outside the city limits, including the oil and gas industry. The largest donations were from three oil companies: $75,000 each from XTO Energy of Fort Worth, Devon Energy of Oklahoma and EnerVest of Houston.
Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy billboard.
During the same time period, the Denton Drilling Awareness Group’s political action committee, Pass the Ban, received almost $51,000 in donations. About $30,000 of the funds received came from Earthworks, a national environmental nonprofit organization.
“Ninety-five percent of money given by Earthworks is from local donations made to Earthworks earmarked for support of the ban,” according to Sharon Wilson, Earthworks' Texas representative.
“By donating through Earthworks, donors don’t have to share their name. And there are many reasons for not wanting to publicly oppose the oil and gas industry in Denton,” Adam Briggle, a professor at the University of North Texas and member of The Drilling Awareness Group, told DeSmogBlog.
Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy attacked Earthworks on its website and made personal attacks against Wilson and Briggle. The pro-fracking group claims the two have connections with the Russian government and are attacking America's energy independence.
When the talking point for backers of the fracking industry shifted from “energy independence” to “energy security,” McCarthy-era tactics against people in the anti-fracking movement increased.
David Porter, another Texas Railroad Commissioner warned Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter that Russia’s “apparent strategy includes funding anti-hydraulic fracturing environmental organizations.” Porter claims Gazprom, the Russian state-run energy company is behind the effort. Their actions have already “resulted in the ban of hydraulic fracturing in many EU countries, and now, they have their sights set on the U.S.,” he wrote.
“To get into a Texas psyche and say by criticizing fracking or supporting a ban you're some how supporting Putin in Russia? What Texan wants to support Russia? It is a genius political move,” Roden says. “However the fact remains that everyone I know who is for the ban are local grassroots folks.
Roden doesn’t deny the fracking boom has fueled the state’s economy. But it isn’t driving Denton’s economy. Arguments that banning fracking will cost Denton millions of dollars put forth in the Perryman Report, a study produced for the Forth Worth Chamber of Commerce, don’t ring true to Roden, who argues that the report conflates countywide statistics with city data.
“Only 0.2 percent of jobs have to do with oil and gas in our city. Until we started to say ‘No,' no one tried to tell us this [fracking] was our economic future,” Roden says.
Another argument used against the ban is the threat of lawsuits that would follow its passage. Roden believes lawsuits are inevitable, and points out that the city is already facing a lawsuit against a 1,200-foot set-back ordinance that could affect the fracking industry.
Nationwide, elected officials have benefited from the oil and gas industry's money. Texans for Public Justice found that lawmakers received nearly $12.2 million in contributions from oil and gas interests between January 2011 and June 2014, according to the Dallas News.
Maile Bush, a homeowner who lives sandwiched between two fracking sites, has been collecting the mailers sent by the Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy. A glossy flyer featuring a stock photo of a racially diverse group of happy children, along with a slogan claiming the ban will hurt children in Denton, deeply offends her.
“These kids don’t go to school here,” Bush told DeSmogBlog. She scoffs at the claim the ban “will hurt our schools by shrinking tax revenue.”
“By allowing fracking to continue, our property values go down, as will property taxes,” Bush counters.
“If oil and gas is such a windfall for our schools, why does Texas rank 49th in the country on per-student spending?” Professor Briggle asks in a blog post.
Roden suggests a ban could be an ecomonic advantage for Denton.
“We want to attract the best and the brightest to the university and it would be good to retain them,” Roden says. “The push toward utilizing sustainable energy has been a selling point in Denton. And this issue stands out like a black eye.”
“The buzz word now in Denton is 'responsible drilling’ but I don’t see anyone with policy suggestions,” Roden says. “It seems like we are able to reasonably regulate other industries. This one just seems to have a ‘kings X’ on it and can do whatever it wants.”
Drilling rig in Denton, Texas. ©2014 Julie Dermansky