Nov 11 2:08 PM

Texas messes with Denton

Area residents Topher Jones, Edward Hartmann and Angie Holliday hold a sign outside the Denton City Council in July. Last Tuesday, Denton became the first town in Texas to ban fracking.
Tony Gutierrez/AP

A week after a historic vote to ban hydraulic fracturing (or fracking — the controversial drilling method that forces oil and gas from shale formations with pressurized water, sand and a host of chemicals), Denton, Texas, has been told the state will continue to issue drilling permits within the city limits.

“It’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” said Christi Craddick, chairwoman of the Railroad Commission of Texas. “We’re going to continue permitting up there because that’s my job.”

Also known as the Texas Railroad Commission or TRC, the three-member state body actually has no jurisdiction over the rails, but it does regulate the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipelines and uranium mining in the Lone Star State. TRC commissioner is an elected office; at present, all three members are Republicans.

Though other municipalities have tried to regulate local drilling, Denton, a town of 121,000 in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, became the first in Texas to ban fracking outright when they approved the prohibition by 18 percentage points Tuesday. Denton already has more than 270 wells inside its borders, and area residents have complained of health problems they say are tied to hydrocarbon extraction.

Concerned that a local law could set a precedent, oil and gas companies pumped nearly $700,000 into efforts to defeat the anti-fracking measure — outspending ban advocates 10 to 1.

Within days of passage, industry representatives went to court, seeking an injunction against Denton’s law. But now it is the town that must lawyer up to defend its voters against the TRC. Denton spokeswoman Lindsey Baker told the AP that the town has a $4 million fund to fight the challenges, and Mayor Chris Watts has said his administration will “exercise the legal remedies that are available” to defend their ban.

Denton joined voters in San Benito County, California, and Athens, Ohio, in approving fracking bans on Tuesday.

"What we would like to see is that local communities, the people most vulnerable to the risks of fracking, are empowered to have a greater say over this," said Adam Briggle of Frack Free Denton, a group that advocated for the ban, in the Los Angeles Times.

Oil and gas lawyers say this about honoring industry mineral rights. The state Railroad Commission says it is a matter of jurisdiction. But Mayor Watts saw it a bit differently.

"The democratic process is alive and well in Denton," Watts said in a post-vote statement. "Hydraulic fracturing, as determined by our citizens, will be prohibited in the Denton city limits."

The ban on fracking is set to go into effect Dec. 2.

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