Tony Gutierrez/AP

Will this be the first Texas city to ban fracking?

In November, Denton will vote on whether to ban the controversial method, but is the city legally allowed to do that?

DENTON, Texas – It was almost dinnertime when an ice cream truck lazily made its way through the North Texas subdivision. A few kids came running. Maile Bush’s children weren’t among them, because she won’t let them go outside.

The family moved to Denton for their slice of heaven. That was, she said, before the fracking industry came knocking.

“You constantly live in a state of terror because you have no idea what they're doing precisely and they don't tell you,” Bush said. “But your home is at risk. Your family is at risk.”

Located 40 miles north of Dallas, Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale, one of the largest natural gas deposits in the nation. The Barnett Shale is also home to the most intensive gas drilling operations ever attempted in an urban area. Now Bush is sandwiched between a gas well and a compressor station, and her family’s dream home has become a nightmare.

“I feel like I'm trapped in my home with my small children and it's absolutely not fair,” she said. “The safety and the health of my family and my community has to take precedence over oil extraction, over gas extraction.”

Bush believes that living here is making her family sick. Their litany of health complaints include headaches, nosebleeds and the children’s coughing fits. Her son went from one inhaler to two inhalers, plus a rescue inhaler if necessary.

There are more than 270 active wells within Denton’s city limits, and alarmed locals have taken things into their own hands. In November, the issue will go to a vote. If it passes, this would be the first town in oil and gas-loving Texas to say not in our backyard.

The blowout

Mayor Chris Watts, holds a hand full of comment cards left by area residents and attendees at a public hearing to ban hydraulic fracturing as city attorney Anita Burgess looks on last month in Denton, Texas.
Tony Gutierrez/AP

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – requires drillers to pump large amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the shale formation to release the natural gas trapped more than a mile underground. The process has been around for decades, but it’s now done on an unprecedented scale and much closer to major population centers.

Denton established a 1,200-foot setback from homes for new wells, but the rule doesn’t apply to any existing wells that can be fracked again at any time. In April, after a gas well blowout, homes were evacuated and flights diverted from Denton Municipal Airport. Air tests detected 46 hazardous chemicals downwind. Eagle Ridge Energy – the same Dallas-based company that operates the gas wells near the Bushes’ home – failed to report the blowout to authorities for hours, according to local reports. 

Afraid of another gas well explosion, Bush said she purchased an explosive gas monitor and a carbon monoxide detector “because you don't know what could happen.”

Debbie Ingram lives across the street from the Bushes. She said that when the well adjacent to her backyard was being drilled the neighborhood was unlivable with around-the-clock noise, dust and truck traffic.

“When they did the flaring it looked like our whole backyards were on fire. The whole sky was red and there's black smoke coming toward our houses,” she said. “I’m all for gas and oil drilling. But I just want them to go away from the city. They don't have to be right next to where they contaminate the air, the water and the people.”

Most natural gas is burned to produce electricity or to heat and cool buildings. When burned, it emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Supporters of fracking insist that it can be done safely. But this is little comfort to the people who say the drilling has affected their lives.

“My biggest fear is that my children are going to get sicker. How much worse is it going to get for them? Because we don't know,” Bush said. “It never ends. I'm never going to go to sleep at night and feel safe and secure.”

The special session

The community started fighting back. The advocacy organization Denton Drilling Awareness Group started a petition calling for a fracking ban that gathered almost 2,000 signatures.

“We are producing natural gas. We're doing our share for the Texas, United States economy,” said Cathy McMullen, a home health nurse who helped spearhead the petition. “We're just saying, ‘Do not frack any more wells 187 feet from a child's bedroom.’”

Under public pressure, the City Council first negotiated a temporary moratorium on fracking new wells, which ends in September. But McMullen said that didn’t go far enough.

“My biggest fear is that we're going to have a whole generation of children in 20 years who are going to have some illness, like is associated with asbestos or with cancer,” she said, “… because we did not force the industry to do their due diligence on what they're putting into our air now.”

We're just saying, ‘Do not frack any more wells 187 feet from a child's bedroom.’

Cathy McMullen

Her petition drive prompted the city council to call a special session. For nearly eight hours, council members heard from more than 100 people. Residents filled the main chamber to capacity and spilled out into overflow rooms.

Riley Briggs, an 11-year-old Boy Scout, stayed up past his bedtime to address the council.

“Please ban fracking,” he said. “Save our city, save our state, save our country.” 

Shortly before 3 a.m., in a 5-2 vote, the council voted against the ban, deciding instead to send the issue to voters in November. 

Who’s got the right?

Hundreds of residents and speakers gather to watch proceedings in a city council public hearing last month in Denton, Texas.
Tony Gutierrez/AP

One of the issues before the council was the fact of split estates. In Texas, mineral rights and surface rights are separate, so homeowners often don’t own the oil and gas beneath their homes. A ban would make mineral estates virtually worthless, a bitter pill for those who own them and stand to make major profits in a shale boom.

Tricia Davis, a mineral rights owner from outside of Austin, made the trek to Denton to testify against the ban.

“Banning and condemning mineral rights is not the answer,” said Davis, who is also the president of the Texas Royalty Council. “The royalty owners will have lost our property. Our property will have been condemned if a ban on fracking does pass.”

And if it that happens, the city could be liable for the loss. Dalton Gregory, a retired elementary school principal and city council member, fears that the oil and gas industry, mineral rights owners or even the state of Texas could come after Denton.

“They could sue us on a couple of different levels,” he said, explaining that they would potentially have to pay out the value of the minerals.  “… It would bankrupt the city.”

The state agency responsible for regulating fracking, the Texas Railroad Commission, declined America Tonight’s interview request, saying the agency “does not get involved in local regulatory issues.”

But the chairman of the commission, Barry Smitherman, sent a letter to the Denton City Council urging them to deny the ban. He also suggested that out-of-state actors and even foreign powers like Russia might be behind it. 

A fracking ban isn’t only a question of surface and mineral rights, but town and state rights too. And that debate is playing out in states across the country. In June, New York’s highest court ruled that towns could ban fracking within their borders. The following month, a judge overturned a Colorado town’s voter-approved fracking ban, arguing that only the state government had that power.

“It raises a couple of issues,” said Jeff Gaba, who specializes in environmental law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “… How much responsibility, how much authority do you have to control what's going on in your own neighborhood? How much should we turn over responsibility for regulating this to the state, which may have different concerns and different pressures on it?”

Gaba added: “Fracking's not going away.”

But neither are residents like Bush.

“It's my duty as a mother to make sure that my kids and everybody else's kids are protected,” she said. “If I have the ability to go out and speak and I have the wherewithal to do it, I'm going to do it. I'm not going to count on someone else to go do it for me.”

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