A town in Texas banned the controversial natural gas extraction method known as fracking, but the industry has responded with placing a ban on bans.
In a peremptory case of government acting as oil industry legislator, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a prohibition on fracking bans — completely undermining one town’s hard-won ordinance to protect its citizens’ health and safety. Effective immediately, no city or town in the entire state will be able to “ban, limit, or otherwise regulate” any “commercially reasonable” industry practice — with “reasonable” being determined by government and the industry, itself.
Having fought against all odds with a tireless grassroots campaign, in a state famous (infamous?) for its fossil fuel industry, the town of Denton managed to pass an anti-fracking ordinance late last November, a feat which garnered international attention. However, Denton was promptly sued by the Texas General Land Office and Texas Oil & Gas Association.
That lawsuit, however, did not appear to have firm footing, so the industry took matters into more powerful hands and used its powerful political sway to wield a legislative weapon instead. Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg, who successfully defended a similar case in Dryden, NY, explained, “The Texas courts have upheld a long tradition of local control, so the Governor and the Legislature took matters into their own hands. Now, they have capitulated to the greedy but powerful oil and gas industry at the expense of their own constituents’ health, well-being, and property rights.”
Apparently, the governor has the concept of private property rights confused with fossil fuel industry predominance. In a statement about the new law, he said, “HB 40 does a profound job of helping to protect private property rights here in the State of Texas, ensuring those who own their own property will not have the heavy hand of local regulation deprive them of their rights.”
Though HB40, which was written by former ExxonMobil lawyer Shannon Ratliff, applies statewide, its transparency as a direct response to Denton’s efforts to ban fracking is virtually indisputable — particularly given the town’s location atop the Barnett Shale, one of the largest natural gas reserves in the country.
“HB 40 was written by the oil and gas industry, for the oil and gas industry, to prevent voters from holding the oil and gas industry accountable for its impacts,” said Sharon Wilson of Earthworks Texas who had helped with the town’s original ban. She added, “It was the oil and gas industry’s contempt for impacted residents that pushed Denton voters to ban fracking in the first place. And now the oil and gas industry, through state lawmakers, has doubled down by showing every city in Texas that same contempt.”
Fracking is the only industry permitted to operate within city limits, and besides the nuisance of noise, there is mounting evidence to support claims that toxic chemicals from wastewater injection make their way into the drinking supply. A recent USGS study confirmed this process causes earthquakes, and risk maps had to be adjusted to account for these human-induced tremors.
Though the law is a clear victory for the bully, the town of Denton remains proud of their accomplishment, and hasn’t lost all hope. As Goldberg explained, “We have been proud to represent the proponents of Denton’s ban, and we know they will regroup and fight back against this legislative overreach.”
“The people of Denton exercised their democratic right to keep a nasty industrial process out of their community–and now big oil and their friends in high places are steamrolling them, along with everyone else in Texas,” said Natural Resources Defense Counsel attorney Dan Raichel. “The interests of a powerful industry should never take priority over the health and safety of American families. Texans should be able to keep dangerous activities and chemicals away from their homes, schools, and hospitals — just as hundreds of other communities across the country have already done.”
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