July 16--DENTON -- The Denton City Council, after a marathon meeting that included about seven hours of testimony where impassioned citizens talked about the dangers of fracking, voted early Wednesday morning to allow voters to decide if they want to ban the controversial drilling method.
If passed by the voters on the Nov. 4 ballot, Denton would become the first city in Texas to outright ban hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure underground to break up rocks and release oil and gas.
The council's vote came shortly before 3 a.m., after about 100 speakers, a few tearful, stated their views. City officials estimate that about 500 people attended the meeting, some watching the proceedings on close-circuit TV in other parts of the building.
"The whole community is frustrated," Mayor Chris Watts said after hearing about half of the speakers, some of them saying they had gone to state regulators and others for help. "People tried the channels they thought would be the proper channels to get relief, only to find out, in the end, there was little relief."
Councilman Kevin Roden said the decision to put the ban on the ballot doesn't mean the fight against fracking is over, even though the ban was backed by 59 of the 110 speakers who signed up to address the council. Another 161 people who attended the meeting signed cards supporting it.
"I do fully anticipate, if we pass the ban, or the citizens do, that we will see the wrath of the industry and it will be costly," Roden said during a break.
The hearing was the result of a successful petition drive by the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which gathered almost 1,900 signatures calling for an ordinance to ban fracking.
The council was required to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal. In the end, on two procedural votes, the council decided to put the referendum on the ballot.
After an agonizing discussion in which the council opted not to impose the ban, and initially rejected the ban in a 5-2 vote, they then immediately voted unanimously to put the matter before voters.
Roden, along with other council members, worried that the campaign over the next few months will bring in big money from an oil and gas industry spoiling for a fight.
"This isn't going to be a city vote. This is going to be national politics," Roden said. "It is going to be David versus Goliath."
State officials and industry officials warned that a ban is likely to lead to a long and expensive legal fight.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson said the state is a mineral owner in the Barnett Shale and within the city of Denton and that he has a fiduciary duty to protect those interests. His agency manages state resources and pumps the money into the Permanent School Fund.
Patterson sent a letter to Mayor Watts before Tueday's council meeting saying his agency opposes the fracking ban.
"I'm not sure the city has the authority to do this under the laws in Texas," Patterson said in an interview with the Star-Telegram. "We want to lease and produce our mineral interests and we will not be held up by a city ordinance no matter how it comes about."
Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips said the ordinance would be illegal.
"I don't think public policy allows for a municipality to decide if there will be no drilling," Phillips, who represents the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said in an interview with the Star-Telegram.
"The state has a strong policy in favor of oil and gas development. ... To completely ban it we think runs afoul of the law."
Denton is in the middle of the Barnett Shale, which lies under in a large chunk of North Texas, and is one of the nation's biggest natural gas fields. While fracking's widespread use has greatly boosted domestic oil and gas production, it also has sparked controversy and growing opposition, including moratoriums in New York state and several cities in Colorado and California.