Don’t Frack on Me: Challenges to the Right to Drill

In Texas, a government official has warned that groups opposed to fracking might be acting on behalf of Russia.

In Colorado, a TV ad portrays fracking opponents as goofy idiots who believe the moon may be made of cheese.

The attacks on drilling opponents may reflect how deeply concerned the industry has become over citizen-led efforts to curb fracking, the now widely-used drilling technique that’s dramatically increasing oil & gas production from shale rock formations.

In both states, there are new and serious proposals for referendums to allow voters to impose statewide restrictions on drilling or to allow local bans on fracking.The public referendums would by-pass state legislatures and state regulatory agencies where, especially in Texas, the oil & gas industry enjoys enormous clout and support.

Texas law also officially promotes oil & gas drilling.The state’s Natural Resources Code says the “mineral resources of this state should be fully and effectively exploited”. But the Code also says local governments have the right to regulate drilling.

The Texas Oil & Gas Association has prepared to push back against opponents by hiring no less than the former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Tom Phillips.

“That is a new type of restriction that made industry sit up and take notice,” said Phillips, referring to a proposal in Denton to ban the use of fracking within the city’s limits.

At a Denton City Council meeting earlier this month, citizens lined up to tell members why they were concerned about fracking. One speaker was Cathy McMullen, a nurse and an organizer of Denton Drilling Awareness, a citizens group that gathered signatures to put the ban on the November ballot.

McMullen brought along her own video presentation which showed neighborhoods where homes and playgrounds were in the foreground while in the background were drilling sites with large, orange flares burning off methane. Another video should a geyser erupting from a drilling rig.

“This is a blowout that occurred in Denton that shut the airport down and evacuated homes. It was over 14 hours and no state violation was issued. I’m just going to run through these,” McMullen told  council members as she clicked through the videos that were projected on a big screen. “They’re just some (examples of ) fracking… what you can see the families had to endure.”

McMullen wore a black t-shirt that said “Frack Free Denton”. So did Kelli Barr, a graduate student. Barr refuted claims made in a letter to council members from Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman. Smitherman said a city ban on fracking would hurt the economy.

Kelli Barr speaking at public hearing in Denton (Cityofdenton.com)

Kelli Barr speaking at public hearing in Denton (Cityofdenton.com)

Smitherman also suggested that “out of state sources” might be pushing for the ban, likening the situation to how he said Russia might be “secretly” working with environmental groups in Europe to ban fracking to protect Russia’s natural gas market from competition.

This led council member Dalton Gregory to ask  Barr: “Are you now or have you ever been a Russian agent?”

Barr laughed and said no to Gregory’s tongue-in-cheek question.

“If I was (a Russian agent), my life would be a whole lot more exciting,” said Barr.

This story was reported by Dave Fehling for StateImpact Texas, a collaborative reporting project looking at energy and the environment in Texas. Terrence Henry contributed reporting.

This story was reported by Dave Fehling for StateImpact Texas, a collaborative reporting project looking at energy and the environment in Texas. Terrence Henry contributed reporting.

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