Environment

Big Texas Oil and Gas Torpedo a Small City's Effort to Ban Fracking — Bye Bye Local Democracy

The people spoke and were promptly ignored.

Following litigation from corporate interests including the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) and the Texas General Land Office (GLO), as well as pressure from the Texas legislature, the Denton City Council has repealed a first-of-its-kind voter approved ban on fracking that had been passed through a ballot measure during the November 2014 general election. Drilling operations have resumed, while residents have vowed to uphold the ban.

Just hours after the fracking ban was passed, TXOGA, the oldest and largest trade organization in Texas representing petroleum interests, whose approximately 4,000 members produce in excess of 92 percent of the state's crude oil and natural gas, and the GLO, the state agency responsible for managing lands and mineral rights owned by the state, filed two separate lawsuits against Denton, saying that the ban was arbitrary and unconstitutional.

In voluntarily giving up its local control, the Denton City Council cited HB 40, a GOP-drafted state bill that was signed into law on May 18 by Governor Greg Abbot, conceding that the local fracking ban was unenforceable under a new state law.

RELATED: 8 Dangerous Side Effects of Fracking That the Industry Doesn't Want You to Hear About

The council said repealing the ban was “in the overall interest of the Denton taxpayers to strategically repeal the ordinance,” in a statement. “Doing so not only potentially reduces ongoing court costs and attorneys fees related to ongoing litigation” but it also “significantly mitigates problems and perceptions associated with operational discrepancies between the ban ordinance and newly-adopted state law.”

Anti-fracking activists protesting in Denton, Texas, on May 31, 2015 (image: Don't Frack with Denton/Facebook)

Nullifying local efforts to ban fracking across the state, the law was backed by ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council), a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that uses corporate contributions to draft and sell prepackaged conservative bills to state legislatures across the nation. ALEC has backed restrictive voter ID laws and drafted Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute.

RELATED: Fracking Has Now Been Linked to Low Birth Weight Babies

"The whole ALEC team, led by Phil King [Republican Texas state representative who is serving as ALEC's national chair], is more considerate of the property rights of corporations than they are the property rights of homeowners and individuals," said former Fort Worth Rep. Lon Burnam, who now works for Public Citizen. "And this is what this battle is really about, because in Texas, the overriding law is deferential treatment to the subsurface mineral right owners over the surface homeowners."

Violet Palmer, a 92-year-old partially-sighted anti-fracking activist was arrested by police at a Denton protest (image: Frack Free Denton/Facebook)

"This law ensures that Texas avoids a patchwork quilt of regulations that differ from region to region, differ from county to county or city to city," said Abbott. "HB 40 strikes a meaningful and correct balance between local control and preserving the state's authority to ensure that regulations are even-handed and do not hamper job creation."

RELATED: Earthquakes Tied to Fracking Boom, Two New Studies Confirm

“The same corporate interests that are behind this push to halt fracking bans and prevent any meaningful action to protect our planet are the same ones pushing to restrict access to the ballot," said Wenonah Hauter, president of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy nonprofit, in a press release. "Their agenda is unpopular and they can only continue to push their regressive policies by preventing popular democracy from flourishing."

Adam Briggle of the anti-fracking group Denton Drilling Awareness said, "This is definitely not the end of the line. It is the beginning of a new chapter in our fight, and it’s one that’s going to be Texas-wide now."

On the same day that the Denton City Council voted to repeal the ban, there was a protest at a Denton fracking site at which several people were arrested, including Violet Palmer, a partially blind 92-year-old activist who has never even had a parking ticket. "Really, there is so little I can do, but I can do it by protesting," Palmer said.

RELATED: Did the Government Illegally Open up 400,000 Acres in California for Fracking?

Reynard Loki is AlterNet's environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at [email protected].

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