A group of residents from a heavily drilled Texas town have banded together in an effort to ban hydraulic fracturing in their city. If they are successful, Denton would become the first city in the state to ban fracking outright.
“We’ve spent years trying to make fracking compatible with our city,” Adam Briggle, a member of Denton Drilling Awareness Group, the group organizing the ban, told Al Jazeera. “But we’ve realized that you can have fracking, or you can have a healthy city — but you can’t have both.”
Denton, a city northwest of Dallas and with just over 100,000 residents, is home to hundreds of gas wells and hundreds of miles of pipelines. Fracking critics say the drilling — shooting pressurized water, chemicals, and sand underground to release oil and gas trapped there — impacts public health and safety.
Briggle said there is strong support for the ban, and that residents who oppose fracking inside Denton city-limits have exhausted all other options.
In Feb. 2012, the Denton City Council unanimously approved a moratorium on drilling, but energy companies were able to continue drilling in some areas despite the freeze because they had received permits beforehand.
“We spent a lot of time trying to pass new laws the regulate fracking but the outcome was more fracking in people’s back yards,” Briggle said. “We had more teeth but nothing to bite because all of things are vested under old rules.”
The group will gather signatures for a ballot initiative to ban fracking within city limits. They need at least 571 signatures for it to be put to the city council.
Denton Drilling Awareness Group said they expect to get more signatures than needed. If they do, it will be up to the city council to approve or deny the ban. If it is adopted, the group expects legal challenges by energy companies hoping to drill in Denton.
“Clearly, drilling for natural gas is incompatible with neighborhoods,” Kevin Roden, of Denton City Council, District 1, told Al Jazeera. “Because some operators have chosen to drill on existing sites dangerously close to homes, citizens are understandably frustrated with the situation.”
Denton, Roden said, sits on top of one of the most productive parts of the Barnett Shale, which has 5,500 wells currently pumping gas and could generate as much as $35 billion for their owners.
If gas prices stay high, tens of thousands of new wells could be drilled in the Barnett Shale in coming decades, said Eric Potter, associate director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Roden said he has doubts about the chances of success for the ban: “We live in a state that is arguably the most pro-oil and gas development state in the nation, where laws and policies are in place to encourage such development and prevent obstacles.”
He said the state, through the Texas Railroad Commission, has primary jurisdiction over oil and gas development. Consequently, the city council doesn’t have the authority to make something illegal that the state has declared lawful.
Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, told Al Jazeera the "Railroad Commission staff do not comment on local ballot initiatives."
Under Texas law, land ownership includes two sets of rights — the surface estate and the mineral estate, according to the commission's website. In heavily drilled areas, its common for those to be owned by two different entities. So a homeowner, for example, can own the surface estate but not the mineral estate. They could have purchased the house from someone who had already sold or never owned the mineral rights to the land.
Mineral rights, furthermore, are called ‘dominant,’ meaning the owner of the mineral estate can use the surface in any “reasonable” way necessary for exploration, development and production of oil and gas.
Dallas-based Eagle Ridge Energy is the main oil and gas developer working currently in Denton, Briggle said. The company, which declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, has a webpage on its activities in Denton.
It reiterates similar arguments about land ownership and mineral rights in Texas, but argues for its right to drill anywhere it can buy mineral rights based on the U.S. Constitution.
“The basic principle of this country and the Constitution is freedom and the unalienable right to enjoy the use of personal and real property," reads a passage from the website. "Certainly not at the expense or detriment to others, but the right still remains.”
“To ban fracking or gas well drilling would clearly be considered a taking (stealing their mineral rights) under the 14th Amendment, which would enable any company or person that suffers such a taking to make a claim against the Party that causes such a taking.”
Eagle Ridge likened it to zoning laws: For example, if someone purchased a property to construct a building in 2001 that was zoned for a specific use, but in 2005 a new code was adopted that prohibited buildings in that area.
So, when Denton passed an ordinance in Jan. 2013 to ban fracking within 1,200 feet of homes, it wasn’t applied to existing wells that already dotted the city. And some companies continued drilling under the old rules.
Because of that loophole, some wells are less than 200 feet away from homes. At the University of North Texas in Denton, students have complained of drilling across the street from their dorms.
Some Denton residents say the pollution they are exposed to due to fracking result in nose bleeds, headaches and nausea. They add that some companies drill in the middle of the night, in wells right next to homes, which sound like a 747 jet engine.
Briggle said he realized Denton had a big problem soon after he moved to the city. He was at the park with his 18-month-old daughter and a resident told him that three gas wells were about to be drilled near the swing-set. That’s when he decided to join Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which will formally launch its petition drive on Thursday.