Texans take on the frackers

June 23, 2014

Kels Fryman reports from Texas on the battle to stop hydraulic fracturing.

FOR MORE than a century, Texas has had the reputation of being a state for Big Oil and Big Gas, and with good reason.

The Texas oil and gas boom started more than a century ago. If it were counted as its own country, Texas would rank as the eighth-largest oil producer in the world--a little over one-third of all domestic oil production comes from the state. Texas also leads in natural gas production at 7.1 trillion cubic feet this year--about the same as the next three leading states combined.

The Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) is made up primarily of people who worked for oil and gas companies. It often meets at an antebellum-style house, paid for by oil and gas corporations, right next to the state Capitol. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, two natural history and science museums host permanent exhibits on the wonders of natural gas, and geology departments at state colleges are given grants from gas companies to teach students the joy of working for them.

Given all the money thrown around by the industry--and all the politicians bought and paid for--it would be easy to write off Texas as a state where environmentalists just can't win. However, a look into what happens on the grassroots level tells a very different story.

Fracking under way in Texas
Fracking under way in Texas

In 2006, citizens in Flower Mound pushed for and won a de facto ban on hydraulic fracturing--the ecologically destructive method of drilling for natural gas by injecting a toxic cocktail of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to force gas to the surface--after the release of a study suggesting that children in the area were more likely to develop leukemia and lymphoma, possibly as a result of fracking.

A 2007 court case brought by DISH Texas (a town so poor it changed its name for the sake of corporate sponsorship) demanded that the town be allowed to protect its citizens from fracking.

The case hinged on a dual-property rights issue--the owners of the "surface" rights were considered separate from owners of mineral rights, and were subsequently not allowed to block access to the mineral rights. In essence, it's perfectly possible to buy a house on a plot of land, but not control the mineral rights--and suddenly have a fracking well next door, with no notification and not even a paltry payoff to help with the resulting medical bills.

THE EFFECTS of fracking are being felt--literally--across Texas. In Azle, there were 30 earthquakes from November to January. Politicians have done nothing but hire a single seismologist to start a study on what could possibly be the cause.

The people who live in the area are pretty sure they know the cause: injection wells being drilled into the earth where fault lines existed, but previously lacked the pressure and lubrication to move, and result in quakes. Now, however, scientists are pointing out that the depth of the earthquakes matches the depth at which the injection wells are being drilled--and they aren't backing down from placing blame on politicians and their corporate representatives.

At a town hall meeting in January, more than 800 people voiced their opposition to fracking in Azle. When the meeting ended, the panel of elected officials and representatives of the Texas Railroad Commission fled out the back door, refusing to stop for the press after a round of people booing and heckling from the audience.

In a recent meeting with Lynda Stokes, the mayor of Reno (a small town next to Azle); state Rep. Phil King; Geophysics professor Heather DeShon; Bill Stevens, a government relations consultant from the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers; and Mose Buchele of StateImpact Texas; the crowd was allowed to ask five questions. Each included a demand that something be done immediately to stop the quakes.

In between questions, as Bill Stevens and Phil King tried to condescend and deflect their anger, the crowd yelled corrections and heckled, while cheering when someone made a point about the health and safety of the community.

IN DENTON, we haven't been quiet about our concerns.

In early 2013, the Denton City Council passed a series of fracking regulations after a four-year fight, but they were watered down from what residents wanted.

The gas industry wasn't even phased by the City Council's pathetic action. None of the air or water controls came into place, and the industry drilled new wells, some within 200 feet of homes. The city filed a lawsuit, then dropped it--and the rigs stayed.

So people in the neighborhoods teamed up with activists and launched a citizens' initiative to ban fracking in the city of Denton. In order to get the initiative on the November ballot, 571 signatures needed to be obtained in 180 days. at a single kickoff event, 200 people put their name down.

By the time the signatures had to be turned in, we had 1,936 signatures--almost the same amount as the people who voted in Denton last year. In the meantime, a City Council that once insisted there would be no moratorium couldn't pass one fast enough to try to quell the growing support for the campaign.

Towns across Texas are starting to fight back against the oil and gas giants that have reigned supreme for so long. People in the communities are starting to ask why their health is put at risk and why their homes are being destroyed in the name of profit.

Better-off towns aren't seeing a fracking boom, but where poor people live, the gas bosses can't drill wells fast enough. And when those wells run dry, they're left to rot. The casings deteriorate, and carcinogens leak out into the ground water--and no one is forced to clean up the mess.

Texans tired of being sacrificed for profits are taking up a fight that will take on the oil and gas companies in their stronghold. If we win here, we can set a precedent for the fight for a world that doesn't rely on fossil fuels that destroy our environment and our health.

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