Adam Briggle (Vice President of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group) and Kevin Roden (City Council Representative from District 1) recently published this opinion piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Below is a slightly expanded version.
In November, the citizens of Denton passed a ban on hydraulic fracturing. Now it is time to defend the ban. The ban is under siege in the courthouse as the city faces two lawsuits. It’s also being attacked at the statehouse as politicians have proposed at least four bills reacting to the Denton vote.
What’s at stake here is much larger than the ban. State legislators have used this as an occasion to attack local control and further erode the power of people to self-govern.
In so doing, our state leaders have worked themselves into a crisis of political philosophy.
When it comes to the perceived overreaches of the Federal government, they decry top-down control. But when it comes to municipalities, they embrace their own position of centralized power to attack governments that embody democracy in its smallest and most representative form.
State Representative Phil King’s proposed HB 540 is a good example. It targets citizens’ initiatives, which allow people to gather signatures on a petition and call for a vote. One would think Mr. King should want to protect the sovereignty of the people in this most direct form of democracy. After all, he is fond of saying, “We should always trust people over big government.” But HB 540 would require citizens to first get the blessing of the attorney general before voting on a petition. Rather than trusting the people, Mr. King thinks we need big government to save us from ourselves.
Why is he so hypocritically jettisoning his own values? Three words: oil and gas.
Mr. King’s bill only exists because the people of Denton used a citizens’ initiative last November to ban hydraulic fracturing. We won despite the oil and gas industry outspending us 15 to 1. The people spoke. Inconveniently for the political ideals of some state leaders, though, they spoke against the industry that owns Austin.
Texas cities have long regulated oil and gas development with local authority that would seem to embody Mr. King’s other cherished motto: “Local control and limited government must be the first resort not the last.” Local communities know what suits them best. As newly elected Governor Greg Abbott said, we should resist “one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter solutions” pushed down from central government.
Yet Mr. King’s other proposed bill, HB 539, is a ticket to cookie cutter solutions. It would require cities to get a fiscal note from the state prior to enacting any measure related to oil and gas development. The note would estimate costs of the measure to the state, which cities would have to reimburse. This proposal would end generations of local control of the oil and gas industry, because no city would risk incurring the costs ginned up by the oil-soaked calculators in Austin. The only thing left will be the one-size-fits-all rules of state government.
When oil and gas prices fall, the industry can slow or cease operations. This has detrimental economic impacts. But HB 539 has nothing to say about industry-inflicted costs. When busts happen, well, that’s just tough luck. But when cities limit industrial activity to protect health and safety, that’s a crime against the state.
Local rules for oil and gas development protect health, safety, welfare, and property values. HB 539 doesn’t take these benefits into account. On a true cost and benefit calculation, the state may well owe cities money for the economic benefits of local oversight. Cities are doing much of the work that industry-captured state regulators fail to do. The state ought to be the one paying municipalities for doing the job it refuses to do. The biased view of regulations behind the bill illustrates how many assumptions will go into forging a fiscal note. It is pure mendacity to pretend the economic impacts of regulations can be pinned down with any accuracy. HB 539 is a black box of arbitrary and vindictive guesswork.
Mr. King is using the Denton fracking ban as an excuse to go on a rampage against all local control. It’s the same government overreach so often decried by our conservative leaders. Clearly, this is not about sound policy or rule of law. It’s about power politics: HB 539 is designed to disenfranchise and neuter municipalities. Why? Because municipalities are the only remaining level of government accountable to citizens rather than big money.
What we need from Austin is legislation that actually addresses the conditions that led to the fracking ban in Denton. It is remarkable how silent our state leaders and state regulators are about the basic situation that drove us to the ban: The industry refused to be a good neighbor and state laws let them get away with it. Rather than chasing down this rabbit hole of arbitrary and biased fiscal bullying, we need leaders who can focus on what needs to be fixed. We need to reduce industry influence over the Railroad Commission, the state oil and gas regulatory agency. We need to resolve the issue of vested rights and equalize the authority of the surface and mineral property estates.
And we need to reform the taxing policies for the industry. As it stands now, Austin takes all the production taxes and redistributes them across the state. Locales with intensive development, like Denton, are economic sacrifice zones as most of the wealth flows out of town while residents pay the nuisance and pollution costs. The state should give at least 50% of taxes from minerals produced in a locale back to that city.
We need to tell our legislators to live up to their own values. It’s time to kill these bills and get working on ones that might actually solve problems.