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Denton fracking ban update

One more look at what is surely the most contentious issue on the ballot anywhere in the state.

With Denton preparing to vote Tuesday on banning hydraulic fracturing within city limits, tension has mounted as rival groups work to undermine each other.

The election has turned into a flash point for a national debate on the oil and gas drilling boom. Towns in New York and Colorado have voted in similar bans. But this would be the first such prohibition in Texas, the home of the country’s energy industry, probably setting off a long legal fight if it passes.

Business owners speak in hushed tones about the ban for fear of alienating customers. Accusations are flying of misleading voters on everything from how hydraulic fracturing works to how to vote for the ban. Representatives from both sides say they have received threats of violence.

For residents, the melee of yard signs, highway billboards and, more recently, television advertisements, has become impossible to avoid.

“I don’t have a television. But when I try to watch something on YouTube, I have to sit through the fracking ads,” said Nick Webber, the owner of a T-shirt shop in downtown Denton. “I’m a little confused where it’s all coming from.”

Tension over fracking has been mounting in Denton for years.

The town, with a rapidly growing population of 123,000, sits atop the natural-gas-rich Barnett Shale. Over the past decade drilling has boomed and dimmed, as hydraulic fracturing has brought forth natural gas long thought undrillable. Denton is now estimated to contain 270 wells, some of which lie close to homes, a hospital and a city park.

Last year, controversy erupted when a Dallas oil and gas company began fracking some older wells in the middle of a new housing development. Residents began reporting respiratory problems blamed on the associated fumes. And the noise of heavy equipment blanketed the neighborhood.

Seven months earlier the city had enacted rules restricting drilling activity within 1,200 feet of homes. But the driller argued successfully in court it did not apply to existing wells.

Soon a core group of fracking opponents, including a staffer with the environmental group Earthworks and an associate philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, were organizing a petition. They collected 2,000 signatures, forcing the City Council to either ban fracking inside the city limits or put it to voters. In July, the council voted 5-2 for a referendum.

See here and here for the background. This is by far the most expensive election in Denton’s history, with ban opponents outspending advocates ten to one. It’s a cinch that this winds up in court if it passes, and you can be sure someone will introduce a bill in the Lege to stamp out this sort of vote in the future regardless of the outcome. That doesn’t seem to have discouraged ban proponents, however.

One more thing:

Long a small college town surrounded by farms, Denton is changing fast. As the University of North Texas has grown, a plethora of new shops and restaurants have sprung up to cater to a new class of young families, professionals and “creatives,” as they call themselves. Graduates who once headed to Austin or Dallas are now staying put.

The new residents have proved a fertile platform for the anti-fracking movement, residents from both sides say.

“The town’s definitely getting more liberal. The old codgers never would have allowed it,” said Dewayne Grissom, a 47-year-old Denton resident opposing the fracking ban.

Early voting is way up in Denton compared to 2010. That’s partly a function of population growth, but this race is fueling it as well. Denton is a Republican stronghold and one would normally assume this turnout boost benefits them, but in this case I think the picture is fuzzier. We’ll know more tonight.

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