Despite vociferous opposition from local elected officials, environmentalists and citizens, many Democrats in the Texas Legislature are supporting controversial legislation that would strip local governments of the power to regulate or ban fracking.
House Bill 40, by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), is one of 11 measures in the Legislature filed in response to a fracking ban approved by Denton voters in November. Darby’s bill, which was temporarily delayed on Tuesday, would overturn Denton’s fracking ban, Dallas’ de facto prohibition on drilling and other cities’ oil and gas regulations, possibly even rules about the distance between rigs and homes not deemed “reasonable.”
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a progressive Democrat and the longest-serving woman legislator in the House, is one of eight Democrats sponsoring the legislation.
“I think that fracking is a safe mechanism, which they can use to be able to extract oil,” she said. Asked about the practical impact of the bill and whether it would allow oil and gas companies to challenge ordinances they don’t deem “reasonable,” Thompson said, “You’re asking me a legal question and I haven’t had oil and gas law since I was in law school.”
Most of the Democrats who signed onto HB 40 are from areas that don’t contend with the hazards of urban drilling: earthquakes, noise, pipelines through yards and air and water pollution. None are from North Texas, where drilling rigs and other oil-and-gas infrastructure often sits uncomfortably close to homes, churches and businesses.
“The cities are the ones who are truly affected and we’re taking that out of their hands and saying that we’re going to be the ones doing it?” said Rep. Nicole Collier, a Democrat from Fort Worth who plans to vote against HB 40. “They’re the ones who have to answer every day and we’re taking that out of their hands.”
Floor discussion of HB40 was delayed till Friday due to a point of order. The bill is now a substitute version that was agreed upon by the Texas Municipal League, which had initially opposed it, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Here’s the TML’s guide to the updated HB40, which they say addressed their larger concerns about pre-empting city ordinances. I appreciate their efforts and I can see where they’re coming from – it was highly likely that some kind of bill of this nature was going to pass, so they did what they could to mitigate it – but I’m more in line with RG Ratcliffe.
The core argument against bans such as the one in Denton is that they take away the property rights of the drillers, the people and companies that buy or lease land to exploit it for mineral production; i.e., frack it for gas. But what about the property rights of people driven out of their homes because of a potential explosion, or who have the value of their homes driven down by a nearby well? And, ultimately, what about the hypocrisy of attacking local control? The state of Texas has been fighting against the federal government over unwanted laws and regulations, so is the Legislature going to grind down local voters in a similar fashion? Denton and Arlington are not cities filled with tree-hugging environmentalists; they typically vote about 60 percent Republican.
On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the oil industry’s desire to drill on land it has owned or leased, but isn’t it also a “taking” if a homeowner cannot sell a house or loses value on a home because of its proximity to an oil or gas well? These are not wells down a caliche road a quarter-mile from a farm house. These are wells in residential neighborhoods. It looks like the legislative leadership is putting jingoism and campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry ahead of the very real concerns of Texas voters and communities.
Well, we know whose takings are more important. Like I said, I can see TML’s rationale. They saw how the wind was blowing and they did what they could to make the best of a bad situation. You don’t have to like what they agreed to, but it was a respectable effort. What I don’t like is Rep. Thompson’s rationale for not only supporting but sponsoring HB40. I’m no expert in oil and gas law, either, but I understand local control and I can see that cities and homeowners are getting the short end of the stick. More to the point, we progressives need to do a better job of sticking together on stuff like this. Pissing off our own allies isn’t helpful. We’re never going to get anything done if we can’t get people who are broadly aligned with us but not direct stakeholders in a given issue when there’s a fight. I mean, if I’m not willing to scratch your back, why should I expect you to scratch mine?