Texas towns test oil and gas supremacy on fracking

EMILY SCHMALL, Associated Press
In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, vehicles drive past the city limits of Reno, Texas. This rural community sits surrounded by hydraulic fracturing drilling operations and is considering passing a municipal ban on fracking within the city limits. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Copyright 2014, The Associated Press

RENO, Texas (AP) — A Texas hamlet shaken by its first recorded earthquake last year and hundreds since then is among communities now taking steps to challenge the oil and gas industry's traditional supremacy over the right to frack.

Reno Mayor Lyndamyrth Stokes said spooked residents started calling last November: "I heard a boom, then crack! The whole house shook. What was that?" one caller asked. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that Reno, a community about 50 miles west of Dallas, had its first earthquake.

Seismologists have looked into whether the tremors are being caused by disposal wells on the outskirts of Reno, where millions of gallons of water produced by hydraulic fracturing are injected every day. Reno took the first step toward what Stokes believes will be an outright ban by passing a law in April limiting disposal well activity to operators who can prove the injections won't cause earthquakes.

Reno and other cities are taking their lead from Denton, a university town north of Dallas where the state's first ban on fracking within city limits takes effect Tuesday. The Denton ban has become a "proxy for this big war between people who want to stop fracking and people who want to see it happen," said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

It also has become a referendum on Texas cities' rights to halt drilling.

Property rights are a part of Texas' cultural fabric, but the desire to develop hydrocarbons is strong in a state that leads the nation in oil and gas development. Furthermore, under state law, property rights are separate from mineral rights, making it possible to own one but not the other.

Cities in other states have tried to stop fracking, with varying success. Courts in Pennsylvania and New York have ruled in favor of allowing cities some control over drilling. But in Colorado, courts ruled against one city's attempted ban.

In Texas, the fight pits municipalities against the Texas Railroad Commission, which governs the oil and gas industry, and the equally powerful General Land Office, which uses revenue from mineral rights to fund public education.

The land office, now headed by George P. Bush, a grandson and nephew of two former presidents, owns 13 million acres of land and mineral rights throughout Texas, including in Denton. It has joined an industry group seeking an injunction to stop the fracking ban from taking effect.

Bush is the managing partner of a fund that invests in oil and gas, and he trumpeted the economic benefits of fracking throughout his election campaign. A spokesman declined requests for an interview, deferring to the Railroad Commission.

The industry association's attorney, Tom Phillips, told The Associated Press that Denton's ban violates a state law that says mineral resources must "be fully and effectively exploited."

Denton's city council has pledged to defend its ban, and other cities have taken note.

"Regulation doesn't work very well in the state of Texas because the Railroad Commission doesn't work on the public's behalf," said Dan Dowdey, an anti-fracking advocate in Alpine, a college town a few hours from two major shale formations, the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford. Dowdey and others are calling for Alpine's city commission to ban fracking — even though the closest drilling is more than 100 miles away.

"We're familiar with what the oil and gas industry can do to an area, and it's not real pretty and it smells bad," Dowdey added.

Residents of Presidio, a border town southwest of Alpine, want municipal leaders to protect their water source from being tainted by exploratory fracking wells in Mexico, said Pat Simms, who sits on a Presidio County water conservation board.

Texas hired its first seismologist to investigate any link between quakes and fracking after Stokes led a group of residents from Reno and Azle to Austin to ask the Railroad Commission to halt the drilling. She said the seismologist, Craig Pearson, later told her it would be impossible to definitively link the two. Pearson did not return calls seeking comment.

Reno resident Barbara Brown shows sinkholes on her property and faint cracks on her front steps and above the door, which she blames on fracking. Brown and her family retreated to the Azle-Reno area from Houston in 2005, but are now considering moving somewhere without drilling.

"They're destroying our land, they're ruining our health," said Brown, 45, in a raspy voice she says is damaged by the fumes from fracking.

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