When Cathy McMullen woke up one morning and saw three dead cows around a cistern on her neighbor’s property, she knew she and her husband needed to move. The pair left their 11-acre spread near Decatur, Texas, in 2009 and headed 30 miles east to Denton, where they hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with the effects of nearby “fracking” wells like the one that she says produced the wastewater that killed the cows.
Little did McMullen know she was walking into the fight of her life — a fight that may prove instructive to St. Tammany Parish residents who are opposing an oil company’s effort to drill a single fracking well near Lakeshore High School.
“We had been in (Denton) less than a month, and we saw five poles in the ground with pink flags on them,” McMullen said. “I said to my husband, ‘That’s how they mark gas wells.’ ”
Indeed, a drilling company was proposing to put three new wells inside the city limits.
“They picked a site that was 300 feet from the park,” she said. Another proposed drilling site was near a school. A third was near a hospital. “That’s when I decided to fight,” she said.
Denton is a college town of 121,000 about 30 minutes north of Dallas and Fort Worth. When the McMullens moved there in 2009, the city was on the cusp of a rapid boom in gas drilling, owing to its location: on the eastern end of the Barnett Shale, one of the largest gas formations in the United States.
Thanks to improvements in drilling technology — specifically hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the gas in the Barnett Shale could now be profitably extracted, and companies were lining up to do just that. And Denton County, along with neighboring Tarrant and Wise counties, was in the core of the play.
McMullen soon discovered that the new wells weren’t the city’s first. In fact, there were already more than 250 gas wells in Denton, but many had only minimal activity, and they were largely ignored.
That was all about to change.
Challenging the council
McMullen and Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas philosophy professor, helped form a citizens’ organization called the Denton Drilling Awareness Group to look into what could be done. But the group didn’t get much support from the City Council, which had formed its own advisory panel.
“The official task force they formed to advise the City Council had three of five members from industry groups,” Briggle said. “That’s when I became really involved.”
Fearful of being sued, the city passed a set of regulatory ordinances that did little to protect homeowners, Briggle said.
Angered by the what they saw as the council’s weakness, the Denton Drilling Awareness Group and its “Frack Free Denton” campaign began to research options and apply pressure. By early this year, it appeared their efforts were paying off: The City Council enacted a temporary moratorium on new drilling permits.
But the permit moratorium doesn’t go far enough, according to Briggle. He wants hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, banned in Denton.
North Texas isn’t the only place where fracking has been controversial. The method — in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground to create fissures in rock through which oil and gas can be pumped out — has engendered protests around the country for a laundry list of health and environmental problems it allegedly causes. Industry groups, however, insist the process is a safe and reliable way for the United States to become more energy-independent.
A key battleground
Through the efforts of Briggle and others, Denton has become one of the foremost battlegrounds in the fight over fracking.
Through his research, Briggle discovered a way a fracking ban might be possible, even without the cooperation of the City Council. Under local law, any group can, through a petition, put a resolution to the City Council. The council is left with two choices — approve the resolution or send it to the city’s voters.
Within the last two weeks, the citizens group submitted approximately 2,000 signatures to the City Council, more than three times the minimum number needed. Those signatures were verified by the registrar of voters, and this summer, the council will have to consider an ordinance to ban fracking.
Denton City Councilman Dalton Gregory praised the grass-roots nature of the organization’s action but said he still expects to vote against the ordinance.
“If the citizens really want us to do that, then they need to authorize us to do that through a vote,” he said.
And even if passed, Gregory cautioned, any such ban would likely end up in court.
“There’s no doubt that there is going to be a legal challenge,” he said.
Gregory compared the quandary to one faced by another Dallas suburb, Farmers Branch, which several years ago passed an ordinance requiring landlords to check the immigration status of renters. Farmers Branch spent $6.2 million fighting a losing legal battle, he said.
The situation in Denton is similar, and Gregory fears the city could spend millions in a legal battle doomed from the start.
“If we fight this battle in court, how do you want us to pay for it? Raise taxes or cut services? We would have to do one or the other,” he said.
Briggle conceded that the fight is likely to end up in the courts and insisted his group is ready for that.
“It’s unprecedented to seek a ban like this, and we don’t know (what will happen) until it goes through the court system,” he said. “I think we have a really strong case.”
A model for Tammany?
The battle in Denton has not gone unnoticed in St. Tammany, where activists have several times pointed to the Texas town as a model for what could be done on the north shore, where Helis Oil & Gas has announced plans to put a well on a 960-acre tract north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088.
The situations in Denton and St. Tammany have some significant differences. Just one well is proposed for St. Tammany, while there are nearly 300 in Denton. Drillers in Denton are after natural gas; Helis plans to go after oil.
Denton draws its water supply from nearby lakes, and while some residents fear the impact of fracking on those watersheds, more fear has been centered on health, nuisance complaints and air quality. In St. Tammany, which draws much of its water from the Southern Hills Aquifer, much of the worry has focused on the potential for harm to the groundwater supply.
Perhaps more to the point, though, are the cultural similarities between the two locales. Both Texas and Louisiana rely heavily on the energy industry to prop up their economies, and both have historically been friendly to oil and gas interests.
Anti-fracking activists in Denton “had tons of meetings where they gathered people in gyms,” said Callie Casstevens, a lawyer working with the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, an activist group opposing the oil well. “We are facing some of the same hurdles politically and socially.”
Both states also have a doctrine of pre-emption, which prevents local governments, like cities and counties or parishes, from enacting rules that infringe on areas the state regulates, such as oil or gas drilling.
This doctrine has been regularly cited by St. Tammany officials such as Parish President Pat Brister, who has said the parish is largely powerless to prevent the well from being drilled. Nevertheless, she and 13 of the 14 Parish Council members — one was out of town — signed a letter to the state’s commissioner of conservation urging him to reject any drilling permits, saying drilling a well is at odds with the St. Tammany tract’s suburban zoning designation.
In addition, Brister has said, she is working to regulate noise, hours of operation, emissions and water testing — all of the issues that McMullen said drove her away from her home in Decatur.
An early start
Unlike Denton, an anti-fracking movement in St. Tammany mobilized almost from the start.
Within days of Helis’ plans becoming known, anti-fracking activists started a Frack Free Mandeville group — now Frack Free St. Tammany — and packed a series of public meetings, demanding elected officials do something to block fracking wells from being drilled in St. Tammany.
Casstevens has studied the Denton model closely.
“St. Tammany Parish could and should do the exact same thing” that the citizens group there is doing, she said. “That’s exactly what I am working on right now.”
Some opponents are crafting an ordinance to place a temporary moratorium on fracking in St. Tammany, similar to the one in Denton. They are also hoping to get a parishwide ban passed through a little-used section of the home rule charter that allows proposed ordinances to go before the council if 10 percent of the parish’s voters sign a petition. If the council refuses to pass the ordinance, then it goes before the parish’s voters.
Concerned Citizens has already started working on such a petition and has collected about 7,500 signatures of the approximately 10,000 needed, Casstevens said. The group hopes to present them to the Parish Council on Tuesday, she said.
Denton’s anti-fracking ban won’t go to the city’s voters until at least November, and the issue may not be decided until long after that if, as expected, the matter ends up in court. But it’s safe to say that activists in Denton and St. Tammany, as well as several other locations around the country, will be watching one another closely.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter @faimon.