Don't Mess with Denton: Groups Move to Intervene in Defense of Local Ordinance

Today, the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (Denton DAG) and Earthworks, assisted by attorneys from NRDC, Earthjustice, and the Texas local government law firm Brown & Hofmeister, moved to intervene in defense of a local ordinance banning fracking within Denton city limits that has been challenged by an industry group and a Texas state agency. (To see the intervention petitions filed, see here and here.)

While the saga leading up to passage of the fracking ban in Denton — a Texas city of over 120,000 people that is increasingly dealing with the problems of a deluge of new, industrial gas wells moving into local neighborhoods (now 277 total by the City’s count) — is years old, the most recent events can fit in a nutshell.

On election day this past November, Denton became the first city in Texas to ban fracking. The people there voted 59% to 41% in favor of a ballot initiative to enact an ordinance banning the risky practice common across the state.  The vote came after several months of tireless efforts by local citizens group Denton DAG, Earthworks, and other Denton residents through the Frack Free Denton campaign. Remarkably, the nearly 20 point victory also came despite a large and very well-funded (to the tune of $770,000 by one count) industry crusade to defeat the initiative.  It was a David vs. Goliath win that affirmed the democratic voice of a community simply fed up with fracking in the areas where they live, work, and play.

The next day, the City of Denton was sued, twice.

The lawsuits (one from the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the other from the Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, a Texas agency that manages certain state-owned lands and mineral interests) assert, among other things, that the Denton ordinance is overridden or “preempted” by state law.  And while these claims clash with the long-established tradition of Texas municipalities exercising home rule authority over oil and gas drilling activities — something neighboring Flower Mound and Dallas have used to place restrictions on fracking in their backyards — they come as no surprise.  For months leading up to the vote, the threat of litigation had been used as one tactic to discourage voters and the City government from adopting the ordinance.

But the residents of Denton won’t be bullied by powerful oil and gas interests — and they weren’t discouraged.

It’s easy to see why not.  Denton sits on top of the Barnett Shale, known as the “birthplace” of modern fracking, which has seen an explosion of drilling in the last decade.  Fracking in Denton is often done within a few hundred feet of homes, schools, and public parks — with one frack well even located directly across the street from the University of North Texas football stadium.  It often also comes with supporting infrastructure like waste pits, pipelines, compressor stations, and flare stacks.  With close to 300 wells in the City, complaints of noise, odors, air emissions, road-damaging truck traffic, and health impacts are common and generally fall on the deaf ears of drilling operators.  After years of putting up with the harms of industrial fracking (literally in their own backyards), and scant protection from state and federal authorities, the residents of Denton had little choice other than move or take matters into their own hands.

With today’s move to intervene, Denton DAG and Earthworks are taking the next step in helping secure the local law that they were integral in crafting and placing on the November ballot, and hope to join the City of Denton in defending the ordinance (the City’s answers in both cases, filed this Monday, are available here and here).  NRDC is proud to help these two organizations that are fighting on behalf of the people of Denton, and communities everywhere that want a voice in their own fracking future.

Indeed, Denton may be the first city in the traditionally oil-friendly state of Texas to ban fracking — but they are not alone. Hundreds of communities across the country have also stood up to oil and gas companies when their state and the federal governments have failed to do so for them. The message is loud and clear: American communities will exercise and defend their right to determine their own fracking fate.

About the Authors

Daniel Raichel

Staff Attorney, New York program

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