Voters to decide ban issue

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An overflow viewing room is set up in the council workroom as Denton residents speak out about a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing in the city of Denton during a City Council meeting, Tuesday.
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City Council rejects residents’ petition on fracking inside Denton

Residents will be heading to the polls in November to decide the fate of a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing in the Denton city limits.

The Denton City Council rejected a voter-initiative petition in a 5-2 vote early Wednesday morning, after receiving testimony from several dozen people, including statewide elected officials, the retired executive director of the Texas Railroad Commission and Denton residents who have fracking within 200 feet of their homes. After rejecting the petition, the council called the election for Nov. 4.

Nearly 2,000 registered voters signed the petition after residents organized the initiative drive this spring. The council had two options with the certified petition under the city charter: accept the ordinance banning fracking as written or send the matter to the voters.

More than 600 residents and industry representatives filled the council chambers, overflow rooms at City Hall and the neighboring Civic Center to participate in the proceedings, officials said. In addition to the speakers, a total of 161 people submitted comment cards supporting the ban. Another 46 submitted cards opposing it.

Initially, council member Kevin Roden moved to accept the petition, citing his concerns over the amount of money that had already been spent in the community on mailers, fliers and plebiscite petitions by the oil and gas industry and royalty owners in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.

“We want a fair vote,” Roden said. “I’m not sure we’re going to get it.”

Roden’s motion died for a lack of a second. Council member Joey Hawkins moved to deny the petition, saying that it was important to him that Denton voters decide the issue. Greg Johnson seconded, echoing the reasoning.

Council member Dalton Gregory then said that he would have seconded Roden’s motion, if only to force more conversation prior to the vote. He, too, was concerned about the effect a campaign in the community would have over the next several months.

Johnson offered to withdraw his second, but the motion stood and the council’s deliberations continued for more than 30 minutes.

Both Gregory and Mayor Chris Watts said they felt the city was going to end up in the same place whether the council passed the ban or the voters did: defending the city’s right to police what happens within its boundaries.

Council member Jim Engelbrecht said he wondered whether the city could extend the current moratorium, which is set to expire Sept. 9, to afford residents some protection in the interim period. Many of the most affected neighborhoods are in Engelbrecht’s district.

Industry representatives and their attorneys told the council that a ban on fracking was equivalent to a ban on drilling, and as such would be unconstitutional in Texas. The controversial technological advance has allowed the industry to extract oil and gas from shale and other tight geological formations that would be less productive otherwise.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips, now representing the Texas Oil and Gas Association at Houston-based Baker Botts, told the council that he was certain some of its members would sue the city over the ban.

Permits to drill on Denton’s west side were issued years ago by the fire department.

Operators holding those permits and leases have claimed their rights to drill and frack under old rules are vested under state law.

Whether it is true that the city doesn’t have the authority to ban fracking remains to be seen. The highest courts in Pennsylvania and New York have upheld the rights of cities in those states to use other long-established municipal powers to regulate fracking within their corporate limits.

When voters head to the polls in November, Denton may not be the first city in Texas to ban fracking. Residents in Alpine, near Big Bend, went before their City Council on July 1 with a proposed ordinance requesting a ban.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.


How they voted

The Denton City Council early Wednesday morning denied a resident-driven initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing in the city limits. Here is how each council member voted:

Yes (to deny): Jim Engelbrecht, Joey Hawkins, Greg Johnson, John Ryan, Chris Watts

No: Kevin Roden, Dalton Gregory

What’s next? Under the city charter, the initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing goes to Denton voters. The City Council has called an election for Nov. 4.

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