Published: 12 July 2014 11:02 PM
Denton has become ground zero in Texas in the fight over hydraulic fracturing.
A local and long-simmering fight over the effects of fracking on Denton neighborhoods is morphing into a statewide battleground over a city’s right to police what happens within its boundaries.
The city staff is preparing for a large crowd when the Denton City Council takes up a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing during its regular meeting Tuesday night, including requiring speakers to register in advance.
Outgoing Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman wrote a letter to Mayor Chris Watts and the City Council on Friday urging them not to approve the ban, calling oil and gas drilling a pillar of the Texas economy.
Under the city charter, the council must hold a public hearing on an initiative petition before taking a vote on the matter. A group of Denton residents organized the initiative in the spring, delivering the signatures of nearly 2,000 registered voters supporting the ban. If the council passes the ban Tuesday, Denton would be the first city in Texas to ban fracking inside its city limits.
New York’s highest court has upheld city-imposed bans on fracking in Dryden and Middlefield. More than 170 cities in New York have used their zoning authority, as Dryden did, to ban the drilling technique. In Colorado, several cities have declared a long-term moratorium or banned fracking despite pressure from the governor’s office.
In Ohio, some cities moved to regulate fracking under local control they had until the Ohio Legislature started rolling back the authority. In Pennsylvania, the state legislature made a similar move against local authority. A group of residents sued to strike down the law. The state’s highest court agreed that the law substantially violated due process and people’s reliance on rational zoning regulations.
Denton’s proposed ban taps a city’s well-established policing powers, including those that protect the health and safety of residents.
City staff released an advisory Friday saying they will open registration for speakers beginning at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Speakers planning to bring audio or visual materials must submit their material to the city secretary by noon Monday.
Resident Cathy McMullen, who helped organize the initiative, said she expects a competing petition to be delivered Tuesday night.
Canvassers have been in town for several weeks working for Taylor Petition Management of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Owner Tracy Taylor declined to answer questions about the scope of work being performed in Denton and who had hired his company to circulate a plebiscite petition in support of fracking.
“Any questions or comments need to come from Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy,” Taylor said.
The group did not return multiple calls for comment.
Unlike initiative and referendum petitions, under the charter, a plebiscite petition does not bind the City Council to any action.
Originally, workers were being paid $2 per signature for the plebiscite petition. Organizers increased payment last week to $2.50 per signature with bonuses, 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.
Taylor Petition Management is one of about 30 licensed petitioners in Colorado. Texas does not require petition companies to be licensed, according to Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state.
If Denton doesn’t approve the ban Tuesday night — leaving the matter for the November ballot instead — Alpine may become the first city in Texas to ban fracking. Residents went before the City Council there on July 1 and requested a ban on hydraulic fracturing. Like Denton, Alpine, near Big Bend, is also a home-rule city.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.