Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Voters Consider First Local Fracking Ban in Texas

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Cathy McMullen and Tom Giovanetti debate a proposal to ban fracking at a meeting of the County GOP Womens Club.

Update, Nov. 5: Denton voters passed a local ban on “fracking,” an oil and gas production process. 59 percent of voters said “yes” to the ban, with 41 percent voting against. The Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) wasted no time in filing a request to overturn the vote, saying it violates state law.

Original story, Oct. 21: For Cathy McMullen, the reasons to ban fracking in Denton are as obvious at the drilling rig that sits on the corner of Masch Branch and Hampton Road on the northwest side of town. It’s big, it’s noisy, and she believes it vents toxic emissions into the community. The site is, however, not very close to any houses.

“I’ll show you where this exact same thing was sitting by someone’s home,” she says.

We drive south until we reach a subdivision. Some of the homes here have been around for a while. Rows of “Sold” signs in front of houses under construction attest to the neighborhood’s popularity. We park at the end of a dead end road, where a natural gas well sits on a field adjoining the subdivision. The large equipment is gone, but McMullen says that could be temporary.

“At any time they can come back and frack this well,” says McMullen. “These people could all be here. They will just see all the trucks coming into this area. And when they wake up two or three or four days later, there is just going to be a big huge site sitting right here, and there will be nothing they can do about it.”

Cathy McMullen says current rules still allow gas operations dangerously close to residential areas in Denton.

Mose Buchele

Cathy McMullen says current rules still allow gas operations dangerously close to residential areas in Denton.

If the fracking ban was in place, “they could not frack this well,” says McMullen. ”That is the argument.”

Of course, there is another side to that argument. In the lead-up to election day, both sides have rallied their troops over a proposal to ban fracking in the town of Denton. Money has poured in from the oil and gas industry to defeat the proposal. Environmental groups have come to support it. People here seem certain that the vote in this North Texas community could have consequences for the entire state of Texas.

While Denton might very well become a “test case” for other Texas towns that want to abolish the fracking, there are parts of this story that are specific to this town alone. Both supporters and opponents of the ban say the conflict goes back to how loose regulations were during the early days of the North Texas gas boom. That’s when fracking, a method of pumping water and chemicals deep underground to free up oil and gas trapped in shale formations, ushered in a new era of drilling.

Back then the City of Denton permitted tracts of land for drilling that sat near residential areas. In other parts of town development grew around the wells. The city has since created new set-back rules and other regulations to try to distance residents from the heavy industry of gas extraction. But ban proponents say those original tracts are grandfathered in. The only way to keep drilling and gas extraction at a distance in large swaths is to ban fracking completely from here on out.

The fact that mineral rights and surface rights are often owned by different people further complicates matters. Frack Free Denton, the group pushing for the ban, is careful to say they are not advocating a ban on drilling itself, and that mineral rights owners would be allowed to drill for gas. But in practice removing the option of fracking makes it hard to believe any drilling would take place.

“In essence, they’re gonna shut your wells down,” says Bobby Jones. Jones is a local mineral rights owner and co-chair of Denton Taxpayers For a Strong Economy, the group opposed to the ban. “Whenever the wells need to be re-fracked, if you can’t re-frack them, that’s when you’re going to have lawsuits come in for condemnation,” he says. “Because there’s still gas down there to develop.”

Both sides debate the economic impacts of fracking. Taxpayers for a Strong Economy says the ban would cost the area millions in tax receipts. Frack Free Denton cites loss of residential property values, drilling’s cost to city infrastructure, and threats to public health.

A natural gas well is drilled in the city of Denton, Texas.

Mose Buchele

A natural gas well is drilled northwest of the city of Denton, Texas.

For Jones and other mineral rights owners, the ban would have a more direct monetary impact.

“It could help some grand kids go to college. It could help a lot of things and they are potentially taking it away from us,” he says.

Voters are weighing those costs, the pricetag of seemingly inevitable lawsuits against impacts of the drilling boom that are both global and local. For every person who supports the ban over concerns about fossil fuels and global warming, there are others who simply want to rid Denton of what they perceive to be a serious nuisance, even a danger. In this part of Texas, accidents do happen. And drillers have paid large settlements and court judgments to families who have gotten sick.

If the ban passes, some state Republican officials have already said the City of Denton could be sued. State legislators have suggested making fracking bans against the law, and Texas oil and gas regulators have even suggested that Russia may be secretly supporting the ban. (Advocates for the ban now jokingly declare they are not secret agents when they make public appearances.)

Debbie Terry is a local member of the Denton County Republicans. She's lived near drilling operations and was undecided on how to vote at a recent party meeting.

Mose Buchele

Debbie Terry is a local member of the Denton County Republicans. She's lived near drilling operations and was undecided on how to vote at a recent party meeting.

But for all the rhetoric, it would be a mistake to view the vote in Denton in a strictly partisan light.

At a recent meeting of the Denton Republican Women’s Club at El Guapo’s Mexican restaurant, supporters and opponents debated the ban. The County GOP is officially against it. But some in the audience were not, and others, like Debbie Terry, were undecided.

“I am a Newt Gingrich, “Drill, Baby, Drill” kind of person,” said Terry, a longtime conservative activist who seemed to echo the feelings of some others in crowd. ”I’m very pro-drilling. Unfortunately, and it sounds very self-serving, I don’t want it in my back yard.”



  • Hayrow

    It appears the well highlighted in the opening part of the story isn’t in the city limits and would not be impacted by the vote on the ban. This effort is ill-conceived and takes private property from citizens.

    • Mose Buchele

      Hi Hayrow, Thanks for reading! From what I can see this particular well is surrounded by the City of Denton, though it may sit on an unincorporated parcel of land. I’ll look into it. Thanks again for reading.

      • Devin Taylor

        The site described is across the road from Denton city limits, but home rule city regulations apply for 5,000 ft into the ETJ, so this site would be affected by Denton laws.

    • http://westchestergasette.blogspot.com/ WCGasette

      “This effort is ill-conceived and takes private property from citizens.”

      Because after all the few deserve to get rich but the majority should suffer with the heavy, industrial activity and health impacts. Got it.

  • Tim Ruggiero

    Natural gas development is an extremely dangerous and dirty business. Blow outs might be ‘rare’, but they do happen, as do pipeline ruptures-more common, spills and leaks-very common and emissions-constant. It just simply has no business near homes, churches,schools and parks. It may give a few people a job, and few others some money, but at whose expense? Mineral right owners rarely live with it, and when they do, sites are not anywhere near their home. Mineral right laws are archaic and go against any form of common sense. Mineral rights only benefit mineral right owners and the companies that lease. Homeowners are stuck with the contamination, constant toxic emissions, and the dangers of explosion, ruptures, fires and blowouts. Bobby Jones and his group promote ‘responsible drilling’, but when you ask him or any of his supporters, including the dozens of associations what ‘responsible’ means and who the ‘responsible’ operators are, they are silent. Promoting ‘responsible’ drilling acknowledges the fact irresponsible drilling exists; If it didn’t, then then there wouldn’t be a need for the ‘responsible’ descriptor.

  • Jodi915

    Cathy McMullin, Adam Briggle and all of the people who have worked so hard to put together Frack Free Denton (including the frackettes) are my heroes.

    Banning fracking is truly a non-partisan act in Denton. It just makes sense to not allow these types of activities in highly populated areas like within the city limits. Quality of life comes to the forefront in these types of decisions. Things got ugly for those who live near where the fracking activities have taken place….noisy, polluted, constant bombardment of trucks and construction type scenarios. One of our parks has exceeded the level of safety for toxic carcinogenic pollutants in the air (and this park is literally surrounded by an established neighborhood and right down the street from a university). People have requested for things like vapor filters to reduce pollution and the companies didn’t oblige…..simple things like this.

    I genuinely hope that all people make it out to vote, because I think we can do this. I think we are going to ban fracking within city limits and I’m grateful to people like TXSharon, Cathy McMullin, Adam Briggle and all who have worked so hard to organize the will of normal citizens against the barrage of monied interests.

  • DemPrecinct Denton

    What Dentonites believe .. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KONeMsBbWdI

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