Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Who’s Behind Denton’s Fracking Ban? Head Texas Regulator Thinks It Could Be Russia

The Denton City Council listened to seven hours of public testimonies from more than 100 people.

Doualy Xaykaothao KERA News

The Denton City Council listened to seven hours of public testimonies from more than 100 people.

After collecting thousands of signatures from local residents, a proposal to ban the oil and gas production technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the city of Denton will end up before voters this fall. While the Denton City Council turned down an opportunity to pass the ban themselves very early this morning, the proposal could still go into effect if voters approve it in November.

It would mark the first time a Texas city has outright banned fracking, and will likely result in a lengthy legal battle. Whether or not Texas cities can have bans like the one proposed in Denton is an open question, and the ban could push Texas courts or the legislature to answer it.

The proposal was put together by a citizen environmental group called the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. Locals in favor of the ban packed City Hall last night (and well into this morning) to speak in favor of it; there were oil and gas industry voices that spoke in opposition as well.

One prominent critic of the proposed ban is Barry Smitherman, the chair of Texas’ oil and gas regulator, the Railroad Commission (which regulates drilling and production, but not railroads). In a letter sent to the city council ahead of the vote, Smitherman cautioned strongly against it, writing that a ban on fracking would mean a ban on drilling. “If other cities were to follow your lead, then we could potentially, one day, see a ban on drilling within all cities in Texas.”

In the letter, Smitherman implies that it isn’t locals pushing the ban. It’s Russia.

In the letter, Smitherman wrote that he wasn’t entirely sure who’s behind the proposal to ban fracking in Denton, but he has some hunches:

“Recently, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, accused Russia of secretly working with environmental groups in Europe to ban hydraulic fracturing so as to maintain Europe’s current dependence upon energy imports from Moscow. It would therefore appear that not all efforts to ban hydraulic fracturing are grounded in environmental concerns. With this in mind, I trust that you all will determine whether funding and manpower behind this effort to ban hydraulic fracturing in Denton is coming from out of state sources or from those who would profit from the imposition of such a ban.”

The allegation that Russia could be behind the ban was noticed by Texas Observer reporter Priscila Mosqueda, who reported on the vote in Denton last night. “Smitherman’s letter to Council suggesting Russia’s involvement in the petition has provided ample fodder for jokes throughout the night,” Mosqueda reported.

In the letter to Denton’s City Council, Smitherman writes that proponents of the ban ought to know that hydraulic fracturing is helping to combat climate change, saying “[carbon dioxide] emissions in the U.S. are down dramatically over the last several years,” citing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the most recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest scientific analysis of climate change to date.

But Smitherman has been openly skeptical about the established science that says increased carbon emissions are causing global climate change. Last summer, he led a panel at a conference of utility commissioners titled ‘The Myth of Carbon Pollution.’ “Not everyone believes in global warming,” Smitherman tweeted from the conference.

Barry Smitherman, the head Texas oil and gas regulator, in a campaign photo.

Courtesy Barry Smitherman for Texas Facebook page

Barry Smitherman, the head Texas oil and gas regulator, in a campaign photo.

He has also questioned the scientific findings of EPA and the UN in the past on issues of climate change, hydraulic fracturing and air pollution. On his Facebook page, he’s called to “send the UN packing!” for trying to curb emissions. But the UN report he references in his letter to the Denton City Council finds that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” Why he now thinks decreased carbon emissions are a positive is a curious position for an outspoken climate change skeptic.

What is clear is that for Smitherman, the Denton fracking ban is about much more than Denton. “I believe that our country, our state, its citizens and school children would be severely harmed” if the ban passes, he wrote.

If it does pass, Smitherman won’t be in office for long if it takes effect. After placing last in the Republican Primary race for Attorney General, he’ll be leaving his post as head oil and gas regulator in January.

Here’s the letter in full:


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