DALLAS (CN) - Voters in Denton, Texas, approved a ballot measure banning fracking Tuesday, setting the stage for a legal battle with mineral-rights holders and energy companies in the drilling-friendly state.
With 37 of 39 precincts reporting late Tuesday, 58.6 percent of Denton residents supported the ban.
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is the practice of drilling and injecting highly pressurized fluid to break shale rocks to release natural gas. The practice has been popular in the vast Barnett Shale in north Texas as rising energy prices have made the expensive process more profitable. Other cities in the region have tried tighter regulations on fracking in the face of environmental concerns by citizens. Denton is the first city to ban it outright.
Mayor Chris Watts, a graduate of Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, said "the democratic process is alive and well in Denton."
He implied the city was ready for litigation, as several state leaders have said such bans are illegal and preempted by state law.
"Hydraulic fracturing, as determined by our citizens, will be prohibited in the Denton city limits," Watts said in a statement. "The City Council is committed to defending the ordinance and will exercise the legal remedies that are available to us should the ordinance be challenged. The City Council is committed to continuing the review of our gas well ordinance to ensure the utmost health, safety, and welfare of our residents, and we will continue to work with industry representatives to ensure full compliance with our gas well drilling ordinance."
Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter said Tuesday evening that the ban will be overturned, expressing "disappointment" that voters fell for "scare tactics and mischaracterizations of the truth." The three-member Railroad Commission regulates the oil and gas industry in Texas.
"Texas is a global energy leader and has the best job climate in the country because of our fair, even-handed regulatory environment," Porter said in a statement. "Bans based on misinformation - instead of science and fact - potentially threaten this energy renaissance and as a result, the well-being of all Texans."
In the weeks before the election, watchdog ShaleTest.org released a report stating that toxic emissions were found in the air at several area playgrounds that exceeded long-term exposure limits imposed by the state. The report stated that at sites it tested in Denton, Dish and Fort Worth, levels of carcinogenic benzene exceeded levels allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
"Although emerging science confirms that fracking-related air pollution is a health risk, there's no agreement yet on 'how close is too close'," ShaleTest director Calvin Tillman said in September. "These results suggest that sometimes 'miles away' can be too close."
Cathy McMullen, president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, urged residents to support the ban after the release of the report.
"The City of Denton promised us air monitoring," McMullen said before the election. "But we'd never have known about toxic benzene at McKenna Park violating the TCEQ long-term exposure limit if it hadn't been for independent testing. After years in pursuit of responsible drilling with industry, and state and city government, we now know from personal experience that responsible drilling is a sham."
McMullen's group collected approximately 2,000 signatures for the measure to be placed on the ballot. It claims that more than 500 gas wells and "hundreds of miles of gas pipelines" are in the city.
The seven-member Denton City Council unanimously approved the ballot measure in July.
Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, now with Baker Botts in Austin and a representative of industry group Texas Oil and Gas Association, opposed the ban, as did former TRRC executive director John Tintera and Texas state Senator Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.Follow @davejourno
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