This commentary originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on May 27, 2015.
The Texas Legislature has spoken: Fracking bans are out. Where does this leave Denton, the city with the most aggressive antifracking regulation, and other Texas municipalities utilizing or exploring oppressive oil and gas regulations?
Citing Denton’s intent to enforce existing regulations for the health and safety of its residents, a city spokeswoman indicated that Denton might intend to ignore recently passed state legislation and attempt to regulate oil and gas operations outside of the clear parameters set out for it by HB 40.
Municipalities are allowed to regulate in areas where the state does not; they are given the role of gap-filling at the local level. Recently, health and safety concerns have become the drums most often beaten by municipalities that are looking to expand their authority in areas where none exists. The reason for this is that Texas courts are more apt to uphold a municipal power grab that protects health and safety concerns.
In this instance, however, with the barest glimpse at the facts, it becomes apparent that health and safety concerns are nothing but a convenient veil for municipalities looking to expand their power.
HB 40 permits Denton to regulate oil and gas surface activities in a commercially reasonable manner, as long as that regulation does not result in an effective prohibition of oil and gas operations.
Until recently, Denton required oil and gas producers to maintain a 1,200-foot setback when drilling a new well. However, in what is known as a reverse setback, homebuilders were allowed to build at a 250- or 300-foot distance from an operational well.
Denton and other similarly minded municipalities would have you believe that the harm from a fracking well only arises from an oil and gas operator’s application to build.
Oppressive regulations on fracking serve only to harm the economy of the state and the localities that enforce them. In 2014 alone, the oil and gas industry paid over $15 billion in state and local taxes and royalties.
Fracking opponents point to oil and gas revenue in an attempt to vilify the state government, suggesting the bottom line is more important than the welfare of Texans. On this, two points should be made.
First, oil and gas tax revenue directly fund schools and roads, not to mention the economic stimulus the industry provides to the entire state.
Second, the harms that environmentalists tout are unfounded. Though numerous studies have been conducted, fracking has never been linked to groundwater contamination. Emissions of methane from shale areas have decreased dramatically over the past four years due to industry innovation — of the industry’s own volition, without federal or state interference.
While SMU’s recent study on earthquakes and injection wells in Azle and the relatively large earthquake that recently hit Irving might make some nervous about fracking’s effects on Texas, the reality is that active fracking wells have not been linked to any earthquakes. SMU’s research suggests that in areas where fault lines exist, pressure can mount when brine is extracted and wastewater injected, and some slipping in tectonic plates might occur. Notably though, thousands of injection wells are active in Texas without causing earthquakes.
The Railroad Commission of Texas has been responsive when earthquakes have been linked to injection wells. Inspections have been done, hearings have been ordered that could lead to well closures, and operators have been asked to voluntarily close for pressure testing.
Without sound environmental justification and certainly without solid legal ground, what part of Denton’s controversial fracking ban is supposed to withstand judicial scrutiny?
The city of Denton will find itself embroiled in expensive legal battles, the cost of which will be borne by its residents. Rather than wasting resources and time in the courts, the city of Denton might reflect on recent events, take a look at the sophisticated engineering behind safe fracking, and consider the enormous economic benefits the shale revolution already has conferred on Texans.
Leigh Thompson is a policy analyst with the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Reach her through email@example.com.