Denton’s proposed fracking ban likely to go to voters

A proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing within Denton city limits, the first in the state, likely will be decided by voters in November, city officials said Monday.

In this gas-rich North Texas town where some wells are less than 200 feet from residential areas, the long-simmering debate about hydraulic fracturing will go before city council Tuesday in the most closely watched city decision in years, officials said. Opponents earlier this year gathered more than 1,900 signatures on a petition to ban hydraulic fracturing within Denton city limits. Enough registered voters signed to force council to vote and on Tuesday, they face two options: Approve a ban outright or place the issue on the November ballot.

“I think everyone all along assumed this was going to go to a citywide vote given the uncharted waters we find ourselves in,” Councilman Kevin Roden said in an interview. “My guess is there’s comfort in letting it go to an entire city vote as opposed to seven of us trying to decide this.”

Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale, one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields.

Hydraulic fracturing, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected underground at high pressure,  unlocks oil and gas from dense shale formations. Advances in horizontal drilling and fracturing have fueled a U.S. oil and gas boom.

But opponents complain that fracturing diminishes home values and exposes residents to environmental risks, particularly in urban areas where some wells are within 100 yards of residences.

Mayor Chris Watts said 287 wells are within Denton’s city limits.

The city last year passed an ordinance to regulate more tightly how close wells could be drilled to residential areas, but because some drilling sites were platted years ago, drillers have argued the new setback rules don’t apply to them. The city sought a temporary injunction against an EagleRidge Energy well it claimed violated the city’s setback rules, but lost in court, the Denton mayor said.

Now that the city has become a  battleground over urban drilling, opponents of a ban have begun weighing in, council members said. 

Opponents include the state’s oil and gas regulator, which said Friday that a fracturing ban would undercut a  key pillar of the Texas economy.

Barry T. Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, sent a 4-page letter to the mayor and city council members blasting the ban proposal as “extremely misguided.”

“Increased production of natural gas, natural gas liquids and crude oil has greatly enhanced the Texas economy,” Smitherman wrote. “Over 400,000 Texans work in the oil and gas industry and the average wage per employee is a staggering $128,000.”

Smitherman won’t attend Tuesday’s public hearing because of a prior commitment, but asked that his written comments be considered.

Although Roden, the councilman, declined to state his position on the ban, he was unimpressed with Smitherman’s letter.

“We’ve been struggling with how to make natural gas drilling compatible in residential areas and largely because of the regulatory environment we find ourselves in, the state is pulling the shots and we’re not able too regulate from a local perspective,” he said.

Sharon Wilson, who helped advise the group that launched the petition, said she believes residents support a ban, and that council members showed a lack of political courage in delaying the decision.

Waiting until November to take the issue to voters,  will  subject Denton residents to an onslaught of industry bullying, she said.

The city is bracing itself for record crowds of up to 500 people at Tuesday’s public hearing, spokeswoman Lindsey Baker said. City staff configured a nearby civic center to live-stream the meeting and scheduled additional officers to provide security.