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Fracked on Their Own Petard: The Self-Implosion of an Industry on the Ropes

As Denton seeks to become the first city in Texas to ban fracking, the industry is trying to frame the fight in economic terms. But that turns out to be a poor choice.

(Photo: Rich Anderson)

Fracking is the only industrial activity in the city of Denton, Texas that is allowed in residential areas (sometimes less than 200 feet from homes). Not even bakeries are allowed there. Fracking is also the only industry allowed to emit non-disclosed chemicals into the environment. That’s why I am helping to lead Frack Free Denton, a citizens’ initiative that takes the oh-so-radical step of prohibiting the most toxic, under-regulated and secretive industry from operating the closest to places where children live and play.

Normally, this would be the stuff of sane and rational, even boring, adjustments to the city code. But because we are talking about the natural gas industry, lots of rich and powerful folks are tarring us as extremists.

One driller said that Denton residents were on a terrorist watch list. The head of the Texas Railroad Commission, a man who is funded by the very industry he supposedly oversees, insinuated that Russia is behind Denton’s proposed ban. Frackers regularly buy full-page ads in the local paper accusing us of being unpatriotic fools. They’ve also carpet bombed social media with ads suggesting we’d run out of lacrosse sticks if we didn’t allow fracking in our neighborhoods.

The industry even paid out-of-state workers $4 per signature (plus hotel and travel expenses) to circulate a deceptive counter petition. I was stopped by one petitioner (from St. Louis) who told me that his petition was for a fracking ban. He actually had no idea what was on his clipboard. Another petitioner was caught lying on video.

It’s a pattern of almost laughable desperation. As the industry clutches at straws – and threatens lawsuits – they are alienating more and more people. At a recent City Council hearing, with 600 people sitting in three overflow rooms, 85 percent of Denton speakers supported the ban. When you’ve got mothers testifying about how living at home has become a nightmare while industry representatives say we must “fully and effectively” exploit mineral resources no matter what – well, it becomes pretty clear who the real extremists are.

For years, Denton, which is now home to 275 gas wells, tried to compromise with the industry on reasonable regulations. We even had our own version of a blue ribbon commission like the one recently formed in Colorado. We dialogued at length, trying to work through divergent interests. But the cards were stacked against local interests with systemic biases in state law – like the predominance of the mineral estate and vested rights rules – that promote mineral extraction above local health and safety concerns. The industry leaned on these state laws and refused to budge. They were fighting even simple ideas, like requiring low-bleed valves, around the time a blowout at a frack site in Denton forced nearby homes to evacuate.

As local bans sweep the nation, Denton is one of the major battlegrounds in a growing jurisdictional war between communities and corporations. Judging by similar elections, the industry will outspend our grassroots organization 100 to 1 by the time the vote on Denton’s ban happens on November 4. But, with bogus petitions and bizarre accusations, they keep shooting themselves in the foot. Like a smart under-sized fighter, we can watch the industry wear itself out with wild punches into thin air.

Their latest gaffe is a report they commissioned from the Perryman Group that tries to show how costly a ban will be for Denton’s economy. They knew the media would only read the first page and parrot the big numbers ginned up there without bothering to scrutinize the report. And the industry’s echo chambers keep shouting those figures too. Yet if we actually look at the report, we find that it confirms what we’ve been saying in favor of the ban.

And this is on a generous reading of the report. I’ve overlooked its black-boxed methodology that is heavy on economic multipliers (which are notoriously easy to abuse). I’ve also set aside the Perryman Group’s record of cheerleading for the industry (like their analysis of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which independent analysts called “dead wrong” and which overestimated the jobs created by the pipeline by three orders of magnitude).

So even assuming their figures are not an exaggeration, here’s what they say (I blogged about this in more detail): Lost tax revenues will amount to 0.06 percent of the city’s total revenues. The impact on the city’s gross product will be a whopping 0.36 percent. Job losses will total just 0.3 percent of the workforce. The only miniscule figure they failed to cite is 2 percent, which is how much of the mineral wealth buried under Denton that actually belongs to Denton families.

The report is only able to inflate these tiny numbers by multiplying everything over a 10-year period. For example, it uses “person-years,” rather than “jobs” for its employment findings. Of course, corporate cronies consistently get this wrong in their scare-mongering screeds.

The industry knew they couldn’t win the battle if it was framed as a matter of local protections for health, safety and welfare. So, they want us to fight on the terrain of economic impacts. But their own figures show how weak that position is for them as well.

The costs of the ban are so small that it won’t take much by way of benefits to make it an economic winner for the city. In fact, one Denton City Council member argued that a fracking ban would result in an economic boom. To show just one economic benefit of a ban, consider that the millennials joining the workforce now want livable cities. A poisonous industry 200 feet from homes (in an area where fracking has an outsized contribution to smog-forming ozone) doesn’t quite fit that bill. They’ll find jobs, and spend their money, elsewhere.

It’s no surprise that the industry only wants to talk about money. But by framing the ban in terms of its economic costs, they’ve just hoisted themselves on their own petard.

They are putting a price tag on our health and safety, our right to enjoy property, the peace of mind of our parents, and the livability and character of our city. Communities across the country besieged by invasive oil and gas development are asking themselves: What are these things worth? Thanks to the industry’s own report, we can now clearly see that in Denton they are worth a hell of a lot more than the measly payoffs from fracking.

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