Yes, in Your Backyard

Texas tells local governments not to mess with oil and gas.

Photo: David Martin Davies

In an audacious rebuke to the energy industry that more or less rules the state of Texas, the city of Denton banned fracking in November. This week, the empire struck back. Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that prohibits local governments from outlawing fracking in their cities and towns: a statewide ban on fracking bans.

This is a craven act of ideological hypocrisy. The American political right claims to love local government and local control—it’s one of the reasons they want to drown the federal government in a bathtub. If you don’t believe me, here are a wide variety of conservative sources making this very point:

  • Former president Richard Nixon: “Local government is the government closest to the people, it is most responsive to the individual person.”
  • Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin: “Conservatives…favor investing authority in the level of government closest to the people (locales and states), which they believe is most responsive and governs best.”
  • Former Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell: “Local control means…each locality is free to tailor local programs to local needs.
  • Oklahoma GOP website: “Government closest to the people governs best and is preferred to centralized control.”
  • Representative Rob Bishop’s Tenth Amendment task force: “Bringing decisions and participation closer to local communities is vital to restoring Americans’ faith and confidence in their government and the political process.”

This one is my favorite: Texas governor Greg Abbott’s website has a page entitled “Local Control.” To be fair, it is about education, rather than fracking, but why is local control important in some domains but terrible in others?

I’ll tell you why. Local control is a slogan, not a principle. It’s something politicians say for applause when they’re slogging around the campaign trail, shaking hands and pretending to care about towns they’ll never visit again. If local control runs up against something that really matters, the people who espouse it abandon it. They rarely even bother to make up an excuse. It’s merely an inconvenience from their past.

Take Abbott himself. Oil and gas was easily the largest industrial contributor to then–attorney general Abbott in the 2012 election cycle, according to VoteSmart.org. Fossil fuels gave 38 percent more money than the next most generous industry, securities and investment. During Abbott’s campaign for governor, the Dallas Morning News criticized him for raising a third of his campaign funds from just 30 very wealthy people, several in the oil and gas industry. Rich people don’t give that kind of money away for nothing.

“We allow unlimited donations, and it leaves us with a concentration of donors—and they get special favors,” Craig McDonald, director of progressive group Texans for Public Justice, told the newspaper. “Money is what greases the wheels in Texas.”

There’s no need to single out Abbott. The VoteSmart data shows that the oil and gas industry has paid to put many Texas lawmakers in office. Oil and gas is the largest industrial contributor to House Speaker Joe Straus. It is the second-largest contributor to Senate President Pro Tempore Craig Estes. The author of the bill that banned local fracking bans, Drew Darby, works on energy issues in his private law practice. In 2013, he received the industry’s Texas Legislative Champion Award. Three of the five largest GOP donors in Texas derive their wealth from fossil fuels.

So, when they had to choose between the amassed wealth of the oil and gas industry and the nebulous ideal of local control, I doubt these politicians lost any sleep. We will likely see the same result in Oklahoma, where a ban on local fracking bans is making its way through state government.

While we’re on the subject of hypocrisy, let’s spare a moment for the oil and gas executives themselves. In 2014, Rex Tillerson, chairman, president, and CEO of ExxonMobil, joined a lawsuit to stop the construction of a water tower that would be used to support fracking operations. Tillerson even attended town hall meetings, where he complained about intrusions into his rural lifestyle. He threatened to move if the development continued. His company is the country’s largest producer of natural gas.

Too bad the local government no longer has the power to stop fracking near the oil and gas magnate’s idyllic rural home. If only he had some influence with people who could help him out…


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