In Denton, a vote ends very little

If there were a contest for the lowest degree of finality conferred by any item on the electoral ballots last week across America, the judges would have to give serious consideration to the proposal to ban hydraulic fracturing in the North Texas city of Denton.

The referendum on the technique — which flushes hydrocarbons from the earth with injections of water, sand and chemicals — produced the first localized ban anywhere in Texas, the source of roughly a third of the country’s oil and gas.

Several years of increasingly bitter local politics in the making, the ban is set to take effect December 2. If it does – and that’s a considerable if – hydraulic fracturing would become a misdemeanor within city limits. The rule would have to find its place amid a patchwork of other local regulations, including a moratorium on new drilling.

The measure has already drawn two formidable legal challenges, one from the Texas General Land Office and the other from the Texas Oil & Gas Association. Christi Craddick, chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, has indicated plans to keep approving state permits in the city. And state lawmakers have made noises about overriding the ban with legislation. Denton officials, for their part, have pledged to defend their new ordinance in court.

Meanwhile, both sides have turned to spinning the results. The ban received 14,881 votes in favor to 10,495 opposed. While the post-mortems have not quite come to hanging chads, nobody seems satisfied.

To hear the winners tell it, the results showed the power of the little people standing up against a flood of corporate money. They raised only $24,000 to support the ban, compared to $466,000 in contributions to the other side, much of which came from big energy companies.

Cathy McMullen, president of the group that campaigned for the ban, emphasized in a telephone interview that the vote defied partisan stereotype. In Denton County, local elections followed the national pattern, sweeping into office business-friendly Republicans including Ryan Sitton, the president of an oil and gas services firm, who won 65 percent of the local vote in his successful statewide bid to join the three-member Railroad Commission.

Those who campaigned against the ban say local voters were overwhelmed by an easy-come easy-go crowd of college students voting in the precincts around the University of North Texas and Texas Women’s University.

“I don’t fault these college folks for participating in our democracy,” Bobby Jones, organizer of the group that worked to stop the ban, said in a written statement after the vote. “But I doubt any of them will offer to repay our city for the massive legal bills we are about to incur.”

As Jones made clear a few days before the vote, when he took me to see the pumpjack supplementing the family income on his small ranch, one of those lawsuits will have his name on it, above the line the says “plaintiff.”

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