Business Energy

In Denton, tension mounts ahead of fracking ban vote

DENTON — Voters filed in and out of the civic center with typical small-town friendliness, trading greetings before heading home to dinner.

But in the parking lot a man wearing wraparound sunglasses and a T-shirt urging residents to vote down a fracking ban was irate. He pointed to a group of women in lawn chairs 30 feet away, chatting happily in sun hats and handing out fliers to voters.

“One of their friends just came over here and demanded to know where I live,” the man, who would identify himself only as Joseph, said last week.

“I’ve been out here two days. And I’ve had 30 people come up to me already, asking me the same thing. They want to know my name, how much I’m being paid and what my address is.”

With Denton preparing to vote Tuesday on banning hydraulic fracturing within city limits, tension has mounted as rival groups work to undermine each other.

The election has turned into a flash point for a national debate on the oil and gas drilling boom. Towns in New York and Colorado have voted in similar bans. But this would be the first such prohibition in Texas, the home of the country’s energy industry, probably setting off a long legal fight if it passes.

Business owners speak in hushed tones about the ban for fear of alienating customers. Accusations are flying of misleading voters on everything from how hydraulic fracturing works to how to vote for the ban. Representatives from both sides say they have received threats of violence.

For residents, the melee of yard signs, highway billboards and, more recently, television advertisements, has become impossible to avoid.

“I don’t have a television. But when I try to watch something on YouTube, I have to sit through the fracking ads,” said Nick Webber, the owner of a T-shirt shop in downtown Denton. “I’m a little confused where it’s all coming from.”

Tension over fracking has been mounting in Denton for years.

The town, with a rapidly growing population of 123,000, sits atop the natural-gas-rich Barnett Shale. Over the past decade drilling has boomed and dimmed, as hydraulic fracturing has brought forth natural gas long thought undrillable. Denton is now estimated to contain 270 wells, some of which lie close to homes, a hospital and a city park.

Last year, controversy erupted when a Dallas oil and gas company began fracking some older wells in the middle of a new housing development. Residents began reporting respiratory problems blamed on the associated fumes. And the noise of heavy equipment blanketed the neighborhood.

Seven months earlier the city had enacted rules restricting drilling activity within 1,200 feet of homes. But the driller argued successfully in court it did not apply to existing wells.

Soon a core group of fracking opponents, including a staffer with the environmental group Earthworks and an associate philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, were organizing a petition. They collected 2,000 signatures, forcing the City Council to either ban fracking inside the city limits or put it to voters. In July, the council voted 5-2 for a referendum.

Money pouring in

Ever since, money has been pouring into Denton from oil and gas companies anxious to stop Denton’s anti-fracking movement before it spreads to other towns.

“Once there is a precedent it’s more likely to embolden the radical environmental groups that are trying to stop the production of fossil fuels,” said Ed Ireland, head of the industry group Barnett Shale Energy Education Council. “If they happened to be successful, they might take it elsewhere.”

Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, the leading group opposing the ban, has raised almost $700,000 since July, almost all of which came from energy companies including Chevron, XTO Energy and Chesapeake Energy.

It’s enough to hire a Fort Worth public relations and advertising firm to manage their message. Bobby Jones, the group’s treasurer, said he and another Denton mineral rights owner launched the group after being approached by an energy company. He wouldn’t say which one.

“I told them, this ban is frigging crazy. And if you need me, I’m here,” he said.

Jones’ family has lived in Denton for more than seven decades, running cattle off 82 acres of grassland close enough to Interstate 35 to hear the passing traffic. Jones has two natural gas wells on his land, one a stone’s throw from the house he shares with his wife and mother-in-law.

The advertising firm handles most of the legwork. But Jones still organizes the posting of signs and approves mailers from his kitchen. On the counter rested a mailer claiming the ban would cost Denton millions in legal fees. It had been sent back with the address label cut out. On it were scrawled the words, “baby killers” and “lies, lies, lies.”

Jones grinned while his wife, Judy, whose voice graces the robocall messages Jones uses, listened quietly in the kitchen. “The threats. It’s getting old,” he said.

Drilling in Denton has slowed dramatically since natural gas prices crashed in 2009. But for landowners, it can still mean six-figure annual royalty checks. Add in the thousands of jobs in the gas fields, and natural gas drilling has come to play a considerable role in the local economy.

Exactly how much is the subject of competing claims. One study lauded by the pro-drilling group put the cost of the ban at more than $250 million in lost economic activity over the next decade.

Denton changing fast

Long a small college town surrounded by farms, Denton is changing fast. As the University of North Texas has grown, a plethora of new shops and restaurants have sprung up to cater to a new class of young families, professionals and “creatives,” as they call themselves. Graduates who once headed to Austin or Dallas are now staying put.

The new residents have proved a fertile platform for the anti-fracking movement, residents from both sides say.

“The town’s definitely getting more liberal. The old codgers never would have allowed it,” said Dewayne Grissom, a 47-year-old Denton resident opposing the fracking ban.

The group Frack Free Denton lacks the funding of its rival — since July it has raised around $75,000. But the group finds ways beyond paid ads to get the message out.

At Denton’s Day of the Dead festival last weekend, members entered the coffin race, in which teams launch homemade coffins down a hill in downtown Denton. The driver wore a gas mask.

Speaking before the Kiwanis Club a few days earlier, Adam Briggle, the UNT philosophy professor, played up his underdog role over plates of pot roast and fried chicken. The group had agreed to host him along with one of his opponents.

“We’re being outspent by our opponents 10-to-1,” he said. “This is about Denton, and we’re in a bad situation. They say the drilling is on the outskirts. But what used to be the outskirts isn’t really the outskirts anymore.”

Afterward, as plates were being cleared away, Glenna Harris, a pediatrician and school board member, said she was torn by the fracking ban vote. She explained how she grew up around oil fields near Austin decades ago and how she never worried about the health impact.

“Maybe we should have,” she said. “The pragmatic part of me says no, we shouldn’t do this because it’s going to cost us a lot of money. But I have grandchildren. What about them?”

Staff writer Marissa Barnett in Austin contributed to this report.

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