Denton City Council Rejects Fracking Ban: Referendum Will Be on November Ballot

The failure of the Denton city council to pass a fracking ban in Denton, Texas, after a meeting that went on for over eight hours last night, was no surprise to Cathy McMullen, Denton resident and president of Denton Drilling Awareness Group.

“The vote was theater,” McMullen told DeSmogBlog.

Councilman Kevin Roden was the only one to call for ban. His motion was not seconded. A motion to deny the ban was approved 5 to 2, followed by an unanimous vote to put the ban initiative on the next ballot.

After a landmark ruling in New York State Supreme Court that upheld a city-imposed ban on fracking in Dryden, N.Y, the battle to ban fracking in Denton is being closely watched.

Reagan Stinson, in front of her home in a subdivision at Bonnie Brae Street and Vintage Boulevard, across from an EagleRidge Energy site. Stinson told DeSmogBlog the constant activity at the site made it hard for her to sleep. (Photo: ©2014 Julie Dermansky) Reagan Stinson, in front of her home in a subdivision at Bonnie Brae Street and Vintage Boulevard, across from an EagleRidge Energy site. Stinson told DeSmogBlog the constant activity at the site made it hard for her to sleep. (Photo: ©2014 Julie Dermansky)

Denton, a college town, sits on top of the natural gas-rich Barnett Shale. Within the city limits, there are fracking sites less then 300 feet from people’s homes.

Dozens of residents who spoke at the meeting told city council how fracking has destroyed the quality of life for those who live near the frack sites. The meeting was attended by over 500 people who heard first-hand testimony of health issues, noise, traffic problems and reports of diminishing property values.

McMullen’s group gathered close to 2,000 signatures for an initiative to ban new fracking within Denton’s city limits. With all signatures verified, the initiative was presented to the city council resulting in last night’s mandatory council vote.

However, the group never expected the council to pass a ban on new fracking. The entire exercise was to get on the ballot this November so the public can decide.

Cathy McMullen at a City Council meeting in February. (Photo: ©2014 Juile Dermansky)Cathy McMullen at a City Council meeting in February. (Photo: ©2014 Juile Dermansky)

Prior to the city council vote, industry and regulators fought back with their own petitions, studies and letters.

A pro-fracking petition masquerading as an anti-fracking petition presented by workers from out of the area made the rounds in Denton in the weeks prior to the vote. It was turned over to the council at the meeting with 8,000 signatures, according to two representatives from Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy.

Before the meeting, Sharon Wilson, Texas representative for the environmental group Earthworks, heard about the petition and went to investigate. She videotaped an interaction she had with a man who asked if she would sign a petition that he said called for stronger fracking regulations in Denton. She posted that video on her blog, Blue Daze. The petition he asked her to sign actually calls for no such tightening of regulations.

Sharon Wilson, Texas representative for the environmental group Earthworks live tweeting from a council meeting earlier this year. (Photo: ©2014 Juile Dermansky)Sharon Wilson, Texas representative for the environmental group Earthworks live tweeting from a council meeting earlier this year. (Photo: ©2014 Juile Dermansky)

The petition is sponsored by the Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy.

“The group did not return multiple calls for comment,” the Denton Record-Chronicle reports. “Nor would Tracy Taylor, owner of Taylor Petition Management of Colorado Springs, Colorado, for whom the canvassers were working.”

Canvassers were getting $2 a signature, but their payments have been going up to as much as $4 a signature recently, according to local residents.

According to a private Facebook group post obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle: “If a worker averaged more than 50 signatures per day, they would receive another 75 cents per signature at the end of the drive. If they averaged more than 60 signatures, they would be paid $1 per signature bonus. The author of the post, Charles Chavez, also said the company would pay another 50 cents per signature toward hotel and travel expenses and the work had to be finished by Tuesday.”

McCullen feels bad for those who signed the petition without reading it.

During the meeting, two citizens made a plea following a dramatic reading of Wilson’s video interaction with the people pushing the bogus petition. They asked the council to let people come to city hall and retract their signatures.

“Now some pro industry group has their contact information and can do with it as they like,” McMullen told DeSmogBlog.

Barry T. Smitherman, the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, wrote to council members before the meeting, saying: “This attempt to ban drilling is extremely misguided.”

Smitherman encouraged the city council not to approve the fracking ban in a four-page letter in which he suggests Russians could be behind the group pushing to ban drilling.

“This letter was the Railroad Commission’s first direct input into the situation in Denton,” councilman Kevin Roden told CBS news. “I have no interest in an advocacy letter defending the very industry and weak regulations that have created these problems in the first place.”

Adam Briggle, vice president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group told DeSmogBlog that the initiative to ban fracking in Denton is not about banning all drilling.

“There are already 287 wells within Denton’s City limits,” Briggle pointed out. “The group’s initiative is to ban new fracking, not stop drilling altogether.”

Also released prior to the vote was a 69-page industry-funded report by the Perryman Group, sponsored by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, which says banning fracking in Denton would have an adverse economic impact. The report says millions of dollars will be lost by the city of Denton.

Councilman Roden criticized the timing of the report’s release on his blog before the vote.

“They know that means there won’t be enough time for anyone talking about this issue to digest and properly analyze their data, yet they’ll get every reporter leading off with their claims taken right off the front page of their 69-page report,” Roden wrote.

Roden’s blog post goes on to refute key points in the report.

Briggle compared the tactics of the fracking industry to those of the tobacco industry in an op-ed published before the council meeting.

“Peer-reviewed science verifies the harms of fracking. Shamefully, like big tobacco, the fracking industry is playing the denial game. Instead of investing in better practices, they invest in misinformation campaigns. With their un-neighborly ways, they have brought this ban on themselves,” he wrote.

When it was McMullen’s allotted three minutes to speak she read from a list of complaint calls made to the city’s police department against the fracking industry in the Vintage neighborhood. After, she was asked by the council if she was an activist from the East or West coast. She assured them she was not. She reminded the council that banning fracking was not her group’s original goal. Her group wanted meaningful regulation but since they didn’t get that, passing a ban is their only recourse.

Councilman Roden thanked her for her efforts to educate and protect the community over the years. Roden also thanked others who have been frequenting the council meetings for years trying to find a workable solution to protect Denton.

Dozens of pro-industry representatives from out of town who spoke against the ban at times were questioned and chastised by council members after making unsubstantiated claims. Industry’s message to the council was that they should go back to the drawing board and work something out because if the ban is passed you will hurt industry nationwide, even creating international negative repercussions.

Council members asked pro-industry representatives for suggestions on how they propose the council could fix the problems facing Denton despite the restraints put on them by existing laws. No meaningful suggestions were offered.

These questions resulted in laughter from the audience, many who have been working with the council to create regulations before giving up and proposing the ban.

Given the tactics used in the run-up to the council vote, Denton residents should prepare for a massive campaign of misinformation before the ban comes up for a vote by citizens in November.