DENTON, Texas — Voters in the oil-rich North Texas city of Denton voted Tuesday to ban further permitting of hydraulic fracturing, upsetting a campaign backed by big oil and gas companies opposing the measure.
The vote made Denton, which sits atop a large natural gas reserve, the first city in Texas to pass such a ban. It sets up a legal showdown between the city and industry groups that have warned the ban could be followed by lawsuits and a severe hit to Denton’s economy.
With early returns indicating the ban passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote, Mayor Chris Watts said the city would move to enforce it. Though pre-existing permits would remain valid, opponents have called it a wholesale ban on drilling.
“The City Council is committed to defending the ordinance and will exercise the legal remedies that are available to us should the ordinance be challenged,” Watts said in a statement.
David Porter, a commissioner on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, said he was “disappointed that Denton voters fell prey to scare tactics,” adding that such a ban could threaten the state’s “energy renaissance.”
Scores of cities in other states have considered similar bans over health and environmental concerns. But the proposal in Denton was a litmus test on whether any community in Texas — the nation’s biggest oil and gas producer — could rebuff the industry and still thrive.
For more than a decade, Denton has drawn its lifeblood from the huge gas reserves beneath its streets. The gas fields have produced $1 billion in mineral wealth and pumped more than $30 million into city bank accounts.
The push to limit fracking began years ago but got a boost in June when Frack Free Denton submitted a petition to the City Council with enough signatures to force a vote. Because the council rejected it, the measure went to a public vote.
Fracking involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep into underground rock formations to release trapped oil and gas.
Opponents in Denton say fracking pollutes air and drinking water, and that the disposal of the vast amounts of water produced by the drilling process could cause earthquakes.
Industry groups counter that it’s cleaner than other forms of energy extraction and can be done safely.