Why We Are Pushing for a Fracking Ban In the City of Denton

An editorial by Cathy McMullen that appeared in Earth Island Journal.

The Texas government and regulatory agencies aren’t looking out for regular folks like us

As a life long Texan, I grew up with oil and gas drilling. As kids, pumpjacks reminded us of Texas-sized grasshoppers. And we greeted each new well with anticipation because it might mean big money for family or friends. But that was before the pairing of horizontal drilling with high-pressure, slick-water fracking morphed oil and gas development into a different animal entirely.

Today, oil and gas wells bring fear to neighborhoods.

That’s because, thanks to fracking, today’s wells don’t mean gain for the neighborhood hosting it. Instead, fracking means loss: Loss of control over your family’s health, loss of your home as a safe haven, and loss of wealth from your home’s decreasing resale value. Cities lose too, through the destruction of roads and infrastructure, as well as the constant threat of expensive industry lawsuits if their activities are restricted. (Today, there are 212 active wells in the 89.16 square mile city, and 273 active wells within Denton’s corporate city limits.)

This is not the oil and gas industry I grew up with.

Still, when I tell people I’m the president of Denton Drilling Awareness Group — the citizens group behind the Frack Free Denton ballot initiative to ban fracking within Denton city limits —people ask (sometimes not too nicely), “Are you crazy? Why are you pushing for a fracking ban?”

The answers is simple. Because we’ve trying everything else and it hasn’t worked.

I know because as a former member of the city’s Drilling Advisory Group, I worked directly with members of the Denton City Council to improve city oversight of fracking-enabled oil and gas development.

We asked for vapor recovery units so we’d have cleaner air. We asked for lined frack pits to protect our groundwater. We asked for decibel limits at certain times of day so the noise of drilling and fracking wouldn’t chase us out of our homes. And we asked for setbacks so that we wouldn’t have fracking in our backyards and adjacent to our schools.

For the most part, we were denied. We were told stronger ordinances would bring an avalanche of lawsuits from the fracking industry. We were warned our property taxes would increase as city services declined. But we know this isn’t true. Other Texas cities have passed similar and stronger ordinances that withstood legal challenges without onerous consequences.

Unfortunately, even the changes that Denton did enact are practically meaningless. Because the City Council allowed new construction of homes within 250 feet of existing wells. Practically speaking, all existing wells are grandfathered under permits that industry says allows an unlimited number of wells in perpetuity.

Even the City Council’s explicit promises have proven empty, like its 2012 pledge to monitor the air at fracking sites so we’d know if our health was at risk. Even thought it wouldn’t require any change in industry practice, it’s two years later and we still have no monitoring.

And it’s important to remember that fracking hasn’t been proven safe. In fact a new scientific study  published just last week by the National Institutes of Health indicates quite the contrary.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on Texas state government or the US Environmental Protection Agency to pick up the slack. Communities across the country, and particularly in Texas, have discovered that regulators are more interested in providing political cover for the oil and gas industry than in protecting the public from damages caused by the industry.

As with the Denton City Council, our knowledge of Texas’ and EPA’s oversight failings are grounded in hard-won experience. The Texas Council on Environmental Quality’s own records reveal cases where inspectors have responded to community complaints, confirmed the pollution at concentrations so high that the inspectors evacuated the area for fear of their own safety, yet neither notified the community of their findings nor penalized the company responsible.

And EPA’s own Inspector General found that EPA intervention was warranted to protect Parker County landowners’ drinking water, but the agency later backtracked on this conclusion under political pressure from the state, the company, and lobbyists.

Faced with a similar situation, other communities across the country — even those with generations of experience with the oil and gas industry like Colorado and New Mexico — are banning fracking. Statewide bans are becoming politically viable in other oil and gas states even in the face of government opposition. Statewide bans are becoming politically viable in other oil and gas states even in the face of government opposition.

Our backs are against the wall now. We have no other alternative. We’ve tried everything that we can think of. A ban is the last option we have for some control over our lives and the safe haven of our homes.