Fracking Returns, but Denton Vows to Keep Fighting

After their local ban is overturned by a Texas law, anti-fracking residents are angry. 'What will the next thing be that will be taken from us?'

Denton citizens block the entrance of a fracking site in their town belonging to Vantage Energy on June 1, 2015. So far seven activists have been arrested for trespassing. The civil disobedience is in response to a new state law that has rendered Denton’s fracking ban illegal. Credit: Blackland Prairie Rising Tide

Two weeks after Denton's fracking ban was rendered illegal by a sweeping new state law restricting local control of oil-and-gas activities, residents of the north Texas town are frustrated, upset and conflicted about how best to respond.

Emotions were on display at this week's Denton City Council meeting, where more than 30 people weighed in on whether the city should repeal the ban. Following the public's advice, the seven-member council decided against repealing the ban—for now—after more than five hours of testimony and discussion.

"Fracking is happening right now in our community, again, and it's pretty clear that in our community, people do not want fracking to happen," said Ron Seifert, a Denton resident and environmental activist, to the council. "So my question is: What is the city prepared to do to follow through with the will of the people here?"

This isn't an easy question to answer. That's because Denton is wading into new territory in the anti-fracking fight.

Denton is not the first community to ban fracking. Like other towns, counties and states across the county, its population moved to curb the practice for myriad reasons, including concern for public health, the environment, climate, and property values. And like other towns, the city was swiftly hit with two lawsuits: one by an industry group and another by a state government agency. The real difference is that after all those things occurred, state lawmakers responded by passing a ban prohibiting such local control measures. Texas was the first state to pass such a restrictive law, but Oklahoma quickly followed suit.

Before the new law was passed, the town was more confident of its chances of defeating legal challenges. That's because Texas law didn't prohibit such fracking bans. Now it does. And if the town keeps the ban on the books, even without enforcing it, the industry and government have indicated they may still pursue their lawsuits against Denton. 

That's why some lawyers, including Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice, who is working with Denton's anti-fracking group, support repealing the city's ban. Goldberg previously defended Dryden, a New York town that ultimately won the legal challenges to its fracking ban.

Goldberg provided a statement for the Tuesday meeting declaring that if the community follows through on the existing lawsuits, there's a "very serious risk" Denton could lose and set a bad legal precedent for other Texas communities. "Repeal doesn't mean giving up the fight. It means shifting terrain, so we can fight from a position of strength," she wrote.

Neither Goldberg nor the City Council elaborated on what these other options may be. However, a handful of the night's speakers suggested teaming up with other Texas towns whose drilling-related ordinances are similarly undermined by the new law.

But for most of the attendees who spoke up on the issue, including Seifert, the prospect of repealing the ban is sanctioning a violation of individual rights.

Resident Alexandra Ponett told the council: "So all of us here exercised our right to vote [for the ban], and I'd like to see that right respected at a very basic level." Ponett also asked the council: "If we don't stand up to this now...what will the next thing be that will be taken from us?"

Others, including Adam Briggle, president of the town's anti-fracking grassroots organization, Denton Drilling Awareness Group, said that preserving the ban would be more than a symbolic gesture. It ensures Denton residents would not have to repeat their exhaustive efforts to pass a new future ban, in the event that the state law is successfully challenged, he said.

Last year, Denton ban supporters spent many months building a consensus to get it passed in November's elections. Despite the grassroots campaign's being outspent by industry $700,000 to $75,000, the measure won 59 percent of the vote.

Similar to the denizens speaking before the town officials, council member Greg Johnson agreed that on an emotional level, the passage of the state law makes him "just want to fight." But what's more important, he said, is ensuring that the city's next move doesn't "hurt our ability to govern in other areas."

One way citizens are already fighting back is by blocking the entrance of an active fracking site belonging to Vantage Energy. By Wednesday night, seven activists, including Briggle, had been arrested for trespassing. Briggle had alluded to this kind of resistance when he said at the meeting the night before: "Even today, in our weakened position, we refuse to back down. When all else fails we put our very bodies in the way."

During Tuesday's meeting, several speakers promoted civil disobedience, invited the council members to participate, and even challenged the officials to be lenient on the protestors who were simply defending the town's law.

"Leave it to the people of Denton to keep fracking out [this] town. We can do that, just don't get in our way," Seifert said.

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