The states go to war to save fracking


The fight over fracking has entered a new and alarming phase. After the initial shock of the boom in unconventional gas drilling, citizens in environmentally ravaged communities have been fighting back and claiming victories. But Big Oil and their colluders — the big money politicians — don’t put up with this sort of thing for very long. I learned this a generation ago, after I and other lawyers started winning court battles over the radioactive poisoning of land and of workers across the oil patch in the American South. The Mississippi Legislature fought back — successfully, it pains me to report — by changing the rules and forcing property owners to take their claims through an industry-stacked Oil and Gas Board.

That strategy makes a lot of sense for business, unfortunately. After all, most people don’t even know who their state legislator is. Their re-election usually depends on raising cash — lots of cash — and powerful business interests and their lobbyists are happy to oblige. It’s not unusual for a state lawmaker to sponsor and win approval for a bill that thwarts the will of citizens in a district he or she doesn’t even represent — at behest of their corporate sponsors.

That brings us to Ground Zero in the war against pollution from fracking, Denton, Texas. In the heart of one of the most conservative states in the nation, voters in this small city shocked the nation last Election Day by enacting a ban on fracking within its limits. It seems that even conservative voters don’t like the noxious fumes, the threat to their drinking water, and the risk of earthquakes posed by around-the-clock drilling for oil and natural gas.

In an era of legislative gridlock on just about anything else, it took lawmakers in Texas only six months to strike back: 

On Monday the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, signed House Bill 40, a law that in effect bans Denton’s ban and others like it elsewhere in the state. On Wednesday, trucks were moving equipment on to a future fracking site in a field by a busy road on the western outskirts of town.

“They’ve just handed the golden ticket to the oil and gas industry,” said Briggle, president of the Denton Drilling Awareness group and a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas.

A well pad sits only a couple hundred feet from Apogee Stadium, home of the university’s Mean Green football team. But then, in this town of 125,000 people on the Barnett Shale about 40 miles north-west of downtown Dallas, well pads are close to lots of things. There are 280 wells within city limits.

At worst, activists say, they are health and environmental hazards that produce noise and toxic fumes and suppress property values. At best they are eyesores dividing opinion and pockmarking a place that is solidly Republican but fancies itself as a laid-back cultural hub that is something of a miniature Austin.

Now, citizens of Denton are back to Square One. Some are reportedly back picketing at one of the largest drilling pad, but the deck is clearly stacked against them. And Texas is not alone. Lawmakers in Oklahoma are in the process of enacting a similar ban on local anti-fracking ordinances — and the legislation is likely to be copied in other states that have Republican control.

That’s why there needs to be a comprehensive solution to the fracking problem, not just a piecemeal approach. Not every state can be as progressive as New York — which recently banned fracking altogether — which is why federal regulators need to tighten their controls, particularly while the somewhat more environmentally conscious Obama administration is in charge of things. In the long run, the only real fix is alternative energy, so that we’re not putting big smelly fracking rigs next to schools and homes in order to run our power plants.

Read more from the Guardian on how the oil and gas industry fought back in Texas:

Here’s more about the ongoing fight over fracking in Denton:

Read more about the hazards of fracking and how you can fight back in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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