A week after Texas House passed HB 40, aka the “fracking ban ban,” or the “Denton fracking bill,” a team of seismologists led by SMU concluded that “gas field fluid injection and removal is most likely cause of 2013-14 earthquakes” in the Barnett Shale region.
Opposing HB 40 fits nicely into what had essentially become a local control platform adopted by progressive activists and many Democratic elected officials after a slew of GOP bills targeted municipal ordinances on a variety of issues like plastic bag bans, LGBT protections, and of course — oil and gas activity.
Many environmentalists and liberals presumed the Democrats would be in lockstep against the measure to limit local control, but were let down after it passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support.
The initial bill’s detractors included the environmental community and the Texas Municipal League. TML’s concerns hinged on property values for homeowners, preemption of voter approved ordinances, and limits placed on cities’ ability to protect the health and safety of their residents.
TML represents over 1,100 Texas municipalities and noted it was not just large blue cities like Dallas, and ‘college towns’ like Denton that have passed regulations on oil and gas, but that 67 cities in just the Barnett Shale region have buffer zones up to 1,500 between residences and oil wells.
Ultimately, after a deal was struck that would insert language outlining what local jurisdictions could regulate (emergency response, light and noise pollution, traffic, surface drilling), TML stood down. When the bill came to the floor they took the position that any amendments would likely make it worse.
If there is a silver lining it is that the concept of local control is still very strong. The lone GOP vote against HB40 came from their Caucus Chair, Tan Parker. He represents Flower Mound which has its own ordinance, “My perspective is, personally, I support greater local control,” he said according to the Texas Tribune. “And that’s the reason why I supported Flower Mound and voted against the bill.”
The oil and gas industry reps behind the bill say it struck a “balance,” establishing the role of state regulators and enshrining municipal authority, but the true test will be if citizens are satisfied with the outcome and if the growing tensions between residents and industry subside.
Chris Watts, the Mayor of Denton who supported the process that led to a ban on fracking, also saw a bright spot, “In some ways, that’s a positive thing,” Watts said. “Otherwise, we’d be floundering around figuring out where we go from here.” He is hopeful that the Senate will accept the House’s improved version, but believes it will still have an impact on the Denton ban and possibly prompt more litigation.
The industry may have bought better legal standing, but the public relations challenge will persist as long as the canaries in the coal mine are dropping like flies.
While HB40 was improved to affirm a city’s ability to regulate things like light and noise pollution, the deafening silence over the earthquake problem could be a powerful political dynamic lurking beneath the surface. Tremors have been felt all the way in downtown Dallas, creating the potential for earthquakes to become an insurance nightmare.
Texas saw 57 earthquakes ranging from a 2.0 to 4.3 magnitude in 2013, up from 40 in 2012. And, prior to 2008, when SMU began studying earthquakes after one was felt at the DFW airport, a quake had not been felt in the region since 1950. As long as the drilling continues near densely populated areas and cities sprawl into traditional drilling territory the phenomenon is likely to grow as a concern.
So far, that hasn’t prompted Texans to start buying earthquake insurance, which can be expensive and hard to find, Mark Hanna told the San Antonio Express News. The story is different Oklahoma where recent tremors have caused one insurance agent to see a spike in earthquake insurance go from 1% in 2011 to 40% of the homes he insures in 2014. The same Time Magazine article on Oklahoma’s booming earthquake insurance industry reported that on Nov. 6th the largest magnitude earthquake in Oklahoma history hit destroying 14 homes and injuring 2 people. It concluded that attributing damage to any one seismic event is as hard as attributing to a single weather event to climate change, but that because the oil and gas industry showed no signs of slowing down, that neither would the budding industry to give reprieve to homeowners against its effects.
Amberlee Darold, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, told Time, “It’s known that fracking can cause earthquakes and has caused earthquakes,” but Texas’ official seismologist has “no plans for immediate action” regarding the SMU report. Unfortunately, the state doesn’t have a great track record of rigorously holding industry accountable. After one man’s well water had been so contaminated with methane that he could set it on fire, the Texas Railroad Commission rejected his claim that it was a result of oil and gas activity and closed their own investigation. A few months later the LA Times reported on a study that linked well contamination and drilling activity with a headline that read, “natural gas production contaminated drinking water in Texas.”
Those elected to protect the public trust now have more evidence than they need to strike a real balance between our increased energy production and our quality of life. Someone has to, and it doesn’t seem like the Texas Railroad Commission is prepared to do that anymore than their name would suggest.
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