By EMILY SCHMALL
A North Texas community that sits on a large natural gas reserve could become the first city in the state to partially ban hydraulic fracturing, with city leaders in Denton set to vote early Wednesday on a citizen-led petition to outlaw new permits for the drilling method.
The process, also called fracking, has led to significant economic benefits but also to fears that the chemicals could spread to water supplies, worsen air quality and even cause small earthquakes.
Scores of other cities and some states have considered similar bans, but the proposal in Denton is a litmus test on whether any community in Texas — the nation's biggest oil and gas producer — can rebuff the industry and still thrive. Industry groups and state regulators warn that such a ban could be followed by litigation from mineral rights' owners and could have economic implications for the state and even globally.
An estimated 500 people turned out to Denton City Hall Tuesday, spilling over into satellite rooms and even a city building across the street. More than 100 people registered to speak during a hearing before the vote that stretched into the early morning hours Wednesday.
Fracking involves blasting a mix of water, sand and an assortment of chemicals deep into underground rock formations to free oil and gas. While the method has long stirred concerns about its effects on the environment and human health, industry proponents argue that fracking can be done safely and is cleaner than other forms of energy extraction.
Under the proposed ban, operators would be allowed to continue extracting energy from the 275 wells in Denton that have already undergone fracking, but not reinitiate the process on old wells or frack new wells.
Texas law splits land ownership between the surface and the minerals below, and in Denton, most of the mineral rights are held by estates and trusts outside Texas. Denton residents with mineral rights reap about 2 percent of the total royalties.
State regulation "pre-empts" any city right to ban "economically viable drilling," according to former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips.
Phillips represents the powerful Texas Oil and Gas Association and says its thousands of members would "undoubtedly sue" if the ban passes.
Members of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, who organized the petition, argued that the costs of fracking are ultimately higher than the benefits.
Among the registered speakers was Maile Bush, who testified that her son has suffered from nose bleeds and other health issues since fracking near their house began.
Construction company owner Randy Sorrells, 57, opposes the ban, and said he hopes fracking of the five wells on his 100-acre property will fund his three children's college education.
"There is a well 300 feet from my bathroom window. We've never had a problem," Sorrells said.
Denton sits on the Barnett Shale, which is believed to hold one of the largest natural gas reserves in the U.S. City leaders introduced a temporary ban on new fracking permits in May after fracking-ban proponents delivered a petition containing about 2,000 signatures.
Sorrells submitted a petition on behalf of Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy that he said contains about 8,000 signatures of opponents to the ban.
Denton, with a population of about 120,000 residents, is about 35 miles northwest of Dallas and is home to the University of North Texas. If the council rejects the petition, it would likely go to Denton's voters on a November ballot.