First Texan city to ban fracking set to defend legal challenge

Denton officials say hydraulic fracturing constitutes a public rights obstruction

Opponents of fracking during a rally across the street from the White House in Washington. photograph: mandel ngan/afp

Opponents of fracking during a rally across the street from the White House in Washington. photograph: mandel ngan/afp

 

The first city in Texas to ban hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – has promised to defend its decision against a lawsuit by the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

Officials in Denton, a college town about 50km north of Dallas, say fracking causes “conditions that are subversive of public order and constitutes an obstruction of public rights of the community as a whole”.

Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth. It has been hailed by supporters as a potential major new source of energy, but opponents – in Ireland and elsewhere – say it poses a threat to the environment and the health of local residents.

Responding to the lawsuit filed by industry representatives against the decision to ban the practice, Denton officials listed a number of justifications, including “noise, increased heavy truck traffic, liquid spills, vibrations and other offensive results” arising from fracking.

The Denton ban came into effect on December 2nd, after the people of the city voted in favour of it with a majority of more than 58 per cent of the 25,376 ballots cast.

‘Invaded’

Denton is in the Barnett Shale region, considered to have one of the largest producible reserves of any onshore natural gas field in the US. Current activity would suggest so. There are approximately 270 wells in operation.

“There is huge shale gas well activity in the Barnett and the city of Denton is more or less in the middle of it all,” said Ingraffea. “They’ve been told to expect more. In fact, thousands more wells are expected to be drilled in the next decade.

“This is a watershed moment,” he added. “It’s the first time in the history of the state of Texas that a city has been so stubborn concerning the harms that do occur from shale gas development. It’s only the beginning. Denton will be followed by others.”

Others are not so sure. “The ban may seem significant to the local people but so far in other cases elsewhere, state laws have taken precedent,” said Dr Scott Tinker, director of the bureau of economic geology at the University of Texas.

“In the US the landowner owns their own minerals. So it’s hard for a local area to say to individuals ‘you can’t have your minerals’. I bet if you looked at the results closely, you would see that most of the people who voted against the ban had mineral rights and those who voted for it did not.”

Opposition to fracking isn’t quite as strong in other parts of the Lone Star state. In west Texas, for example, revenues from newly discovered oil and gas reserves have had significant economic impact on many small towns and cities that previously had not enjoyed such good times since the first Texas oil boom in the 1970s.

“Anyone who is an enemy of fracking is an enemy of the American people,” said WT Riley of Riley Geological Consultants, based in Midland, West Texas.

Speaking to The Irish Times at the West Texas Geological Symposium in Midland recently, Riley’s attitude was shared by most attendees present. “Fracking has been going on here since the 1950s and when done responsibly, has no environmental impact.”

However, critics argue the technology has moved on considerably in recent years with much higher concentrations of wells in per unit areas. “Each of the wells requires a superfrack – where about a hundred times more fracking fluid is injected into the ground than conventional fracking wells,” said Ingraffea. “You could have eight or more wells per surface mile. With every well there’s an increased risk, on the local scale, of harmed drinking water. Each well is a potential leak source.”

Commerce

“The magnitude of environmental damage is relatively small. We need to look at the frequency risk and potential damages versus the economic gains. And more importantly, if we don’t like hydraulic fracturing in Texas, we need to look at the alternatives and start liking nuclear or coal.”

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