After fracking ban, a long fight ahead

AUSTIN – Hours after voters approved the first local ban on hydraulic fracturing in Texas, the oil and gas industry filed a legal challenge seeking to preserve the technique.

The ban, enacted through a voter referendum in the college town of Denton, 30 miles north of Dallas, could shut down scores of wells in the Barnett Shale. Its advocates described their campaign as a last resort to protect clean air and water near homes and schools. The measure passed with 58 percent of the vote.

The Texas Oil and Gas Association filed its challenge in county court on Wednesday morning, arguing that the city has no right to override state policy favoring subterranean mineral extraction.

“Many of the wells in Denton cannot be produced without hydraulic fracturing, so a ban denies many mineral interest owners the right to gain value from their property, despite the State’s public policy in favor of developing natural resources,” said Thomas Phillips, a lawyer for the trade group, in a statement. The lawsuit seeks to block the ban, he added, “on the grounds that a ban on hydraulic fracturing is inconsistent with state law and therefore violates the Texas Constitution.”

City officials had declined to enact a ban on their own, leaving the decision to voters. Advocates of the ban rallied voters with yard signs and mailers, including some paid for by the Washington-based environmental group Earthworks.

Related: Denton fracking ban campaign most expensive in city history

Local owners of mineral rights fought back, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil companies to pay for billboards and a sophisticated web presence. Several have expressed plans to file their own lawsuits against the city, claiming the ban amounts to illegal confiscation of their property.

Mayor Chris Watts vowed to defend the ban. The city has $4 million in a “risk retention fund” set up to prepare for a variety of contingencies.

“Hydraulic fracturing, as determined by our citizens, will be prohibited in the Denton city limits,” the mayor said in a statement. “The City Council is committed to defending the ordinance.”