Inside the Latest Fracking Controversy Brewing in Texas

Efforts are underway to strip local decisions from the hands of voters over the issue of fracking.

Middle-class people are accustomed to buying their way out of problems. Rather than organizing for better water quality, the middle class buys bottled water or installs fancy water filtration systems. Instead of protesting pesticide overuse, we buy organic groceries. When confronted with endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics, we buy BPA-free packaging. This strategy typically works until an environmental problem comes along that is too big, too powerful and too all consuming to work around — like natural gas development.

During a two-year research project I conducted on natural gas development in North Texas, I found that when faced with the vast resources of drilling companies, the middle class could only effectively respond with collective action. And that’s what happened last fall when Denton residents organized in an grassroots effort to ban fracking in their town, a ban overwhelmingly supported by voters. They fought for their right to a healthy community, to protect their property rights, and for the overall livability of their town.

But middle-class might only goes so far.

In Austin, legislators have filed several bills that would undermine the ban and strip local decisions from the hands of voters. Legislators argue that the authority to regulate oil and gas activity lies with the state state, not municipalities.

A significant portion of the Barnett Shale, a geologic formation rich with natural gas, lies under the populated middle-class communities of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. These communities neither want nor need gas drilling’s economic benefits, as evidenced by their protests against gas development. These residents don’t work for the industry; they were doing just fine economically before the rigs showed up.

Rather than benefiting them, the gas industry has created significant disruptions. We’ve all heard about studies that show fracking contributes to birth defects and some forms of cancer. A report by the Center for Public Integrity detailed the polluting effects on Texas air. And then there’s the unforgettable images of fire shooting out of water faucets.

Legislation to abolish local control will take away the power communities have to regulate their own towns. And here’s another truth about middle class communities: they believed their social class insulated them from the environmental justice struggles faced by low-income and working class communities surrounding the refineries along the Gulf Coast or on the Eagle Ford Shale drilling site in South Texas. But it turns out, they were wrong.

The campaign against local control has struck at the heart of privilege as it strikes at local democracy, rendering Texas communities, wealthy or working class as irrelevant and silent as the votes they cast.

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Dr Jessica Smartt Gullion is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas Woman’s University, author of the forthcoming book, “Fracking the Neighborhood: Reluctant Activists and Natural Gas Drilling” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.