New Texas Law Makes Local Fracking Bans Illegal

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Legislation was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott after the city of Denton voted to restrict fracking. Denton officials say oil companies should not wield more power than citizens.

Editor's Note: Sharon Wilson, an organizer interviewed in this story, began advocating for fracking reform in Denton in 2009 as an unpaid citizen leader. In 2011, she was hired as a full-time organizer by the environmental group Earthworks to continue her anti-fracking work in Denton.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Texas is home of the American energy industry. It is also the home of local efforts to stop fracking. Denton, outside Dallas, became the first Texas city to ban hydraulic fracturing. Other cities have restricted that method of fossil fuel extraction. And now the state has struck back. A new state law largely strips cities and towns of the power to impose limits. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said it was necessary to protect the oil and gas industry from, quote, "the heavy hand of local regulation." Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Sharon Wilson and her family lived on 43 acres of what they considered their little piece of North Texas paradise. But over the last decade, oil and gas were discovered in them there hills. As the drilling rigs began to circle their property, the Wilsons sold out and moved to nearby Denton, only to discover, to their chagrin, that gas drilling rigs were sprouting up all over the city too.

SHARON WILSON: So the closest well that I'm aware of is 187 feet from my family's backyard, in a neighborhood.

GOODWYN: The issue was one of local control. With more than 270 wells inside the city limits, there were worries over air quality, water quality and the heavy truck traffic everywhere. Denton passed larger setbacks to further separate drilling from residential neighborhoods, but it had almost no effect. Gas companies simply grandfathered their new drilling operations onto their older pad sites.

WILSON: They call it vested rights. And they claim that that gives them the right to then come in and expand that pad site, and they don't have to follow any new rules.

GOODWYN: In frustration, the citizens of Denton voted last year by 59 percent to ban fracking inside the city limits altogether. But that turned out to be the mouse waking the lion. And the lion pounced and ate the mouse all up.

TODD STAPLES: Well, the fracking ban in Denton certainly raised the eyebrows.

GOODWYN: Todd Staples is president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Staples says what Denton was doing was stepping on the property rights of the oil and gas industry, taking their property's value without any compensation.

STAPLES: If a city wants to stop an activity, you know, our Constitution protects the rights of property owners. And they just need to pay them for that, but this ban did not allow that.

GOODWYN: More than annoyed, the industry went to the Republican-dominated legislature seeking relief. And they got an enthusiastic welcome. The new law not only strips Texas cities and towns of the power to ban fracking but also the power to regulate many other aspects of the industry that had been commonly regulated, like fracking wastewater disposal. This week, with Gov. Greg Abbott's signature, Denton's little fracking victory turned into an absolute route of local control across the state. Texas Oil and Gas Association president Todd Staples has little sympathy.

STAPLES: You know, I think we have people in our nation and even in Texas that are really just anti-oil and gas. And they would like to see that production stopped. To those folks, I say, ride your horse to work every day.

GOODWYN: According to the Texas Municipal League, 60 Texas cities and towns have some sort of local laws that regulate various aspects of the oil and gas industry - had, that is, up until Monday. But Denton organizer Sharon Wilson says she's not discouraged.

WILSON: I mean, you're going to have some bumps in the road. But now there will be many, many more cities traveling that road with us.

GOODWYN: When those fellow travelers finally all arrive at the state capital, however, they're likely to be shown the door. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.