Denton ‘Fracking Ban’ is about Banning Drilling

Anti-fracking activists in Denton, Tex., who have pushed a ballot measure to ban hydraulic fracturing within the city limits, have repeatedly claimed that the proposal would not ban drilling. But a closer review of the activists’ concerns and public statements suggests that the goal is actually to shut down drilling entirely.

The organization promoting the ban, Frack Free Denton, claims on its frequently asked questions page that “the proposed ordinance does not prohibit gas drilling in Denton-it just prohibits hydraulic fracturing. A prohibition on hydraulic fracturing is not a ban on gas drilling.” Adam Briggle, a professor in the philosophy and religious studies department at the University of North Texas and a board member of Frack Free Denton, argued in a recent op-ed that “the ban prohibits fracking, not drilling.”

Terry Welch, a local lawyer, told residents last month in a meeting organized by Frack Free Denton that a ban on fracking is not the same thing as a ban on drilling. Welch also famously helped promote the restrictive hydraulic fracturing ordinance in Dallas, which established a “de facto drilling ban” that was cheered by Earthworks, the same activist group that is aligned with Frack Free Denton and responsible for most of its funding.

The claim has even penetrated the news media. A local reporter recently published a “Frack check” that attempted to separate fact from fiction regarding the debate over drilling in the city. The article described the ballot measure as such:

“The proposition does not ban drilling. The proposition would ban hydraulic fracturing, a new completion technique for oil and gas wells that is separate from drilling.”

The problem is that the activists pushing the proposition are citing alleged harms from activities that occur throughout the entire well development process, not just hydraulic fracturing.

For example, Frack Free Denton’s list of “10 Reasons to Ban Fracking in Denton” includes a variety of claims and allegations about processes that do not refer to fracking. They link to an explosion related to a gas pipeline incident, even though pipelines are not hydraulically fractured. They claim that the entire industry is “exempt from key provisions of seven environmental laws,” a claim that is not only misleading, but also clearly encapsulates other parts of oil and gas drilling and development beyond the individual completion process of fracking.

In one moment of surprising clarity, Frack Free Denton actually maligns oil and gas production as a whole: “Oil and gas production in the DFW area is responsible for more smog-causing VOC emissions than all the cars on the road.” The claim originates from research that was conducted years ago, and which state regulators have definitively debunked.

Cathy McMullen, who heads up Frack Free Denton, recently told the press that the push to “ban fracking” is partly due to drilling itself. According to a recent report from NPR’s StateImpact:

“For Cathy McMullen, the reasons to ban fracking in Denton are as obvious at the drilling rig that sits on the corner of Masch Branch and Hampton Road on the northwest side of town. It’s big, it’s noisy, and she believes it vents toxic emissions into the community.” (emphasis added)

Hydraulic fracturing does not occur until after a drilling rig is removed from the well site. Moreover, if the activists were truly not interested in banning all drilling, then it’s curious that they would be discussing the alleged impacts from a drilling rig as part of their efforts.

The deceptive tactics and misleading language from drilling opponents mirror what activists have attempted in other states. In Colorado, anti-drilling groups pushing a statewide ballot measure told the media that it “isn’t about banning fracking.” One of those groups then described itself on an anti-fracking conference call as being among “those of us who are working to ban fracking.”

The Sierra Club, a major environmental group that used to support natural gas but now opposes fracking, has staked out both sides of the debate. In one notable example, the Club has called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until additional research could be completed, even while simultaneously opposing a university’s efforts to study the process. The Club and other anti-fracking groups have also used the guise of “more study” and “temporary moratoria” on fracking in order to ban drilling in New York for the past seven years.

According to the Texas Supreme Court, even a supposedly “limited” ban on fracking would still equate to a ban on drilling in Denton, because the wells could not be brought into production without fracturing treatment.

In a case decided in March 2011, the Court determined that: “As in other shale formations, wells in the Barnett Shale require fracture stimulation in order to produce.” In an earlier case from 2008, the Court held that “development in the Barnett Shale in north Texas…is entirely dependent on hydraulic fracturing.”

Drilling opponents want the public to believe that they’re not interested in shutting down drilling, no doubt because the general public — including clear majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — overwhelmingly support expanded American oil and gas production. But it’s clear that the campaign in Denton is, in fact, about banning drilling — despite what some of the local (and not-so-local) activists may be claiming.

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