Last week, Denton became the first city in the state to pass a citywide ban on fracking. Voters approved the ban in a landslide, with 59 percent in favor of the ban and 41 percent against, after more than five years of struggle between anti-fracking activists and the energy industry.
Now comes the backlash. The General Land Office and the Texas Oil and Gas Association are the first, so far, to file suits against the city. Railroad Commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick is also hinting at legal action, and has announced her agency will continue to grant drilling permits to companies in Denton.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson "has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the assets of the permanent school fund. And he feels a ban could affect the value of the schoolkids' assets," says Jim Suydam, a spokesman for the General Land Office. "Commissioner Patterson is still commissioner until January. He said he would do it [file suit] before hand, and he did it."
The city may also face a challenge from within. Activists say Denton's city attorney, Anita Burgess, who should help the city defend the ban in court, was opposed to the measure. Sharon Wilson, an employee of Earthworks and an avid blogger on the Denton anti-fracking movement, says that while she hasn't spoken directly to Burgess, her support for the oil and gas industry is widely whispered throughout Denton. Cathy McMullen, president of Frack Free Denton, tells the same story.
City spokeswoman Lindsey Baker declined to address Burgess' stance on the ban but stressed that Burgess would stay on the case. "She is first and foremost a public attorney for the City of Denton and here to defend any ordinances," Baker says. "She is extremely neutral, and her focus is on the facts."
Still, the city will likely be bringing in outside counsel. Terry Morgan, a Dallas-based attorney who focuses on land use and zoning, has confirmed that he has been in conversation with city attorneys. "I've represented the city on gas well matters for quite some time," he says. No word yet on whether he has been officially signed on as an attorney for these lawsuits.
Anti-fracking activists insist the ordinance was thoroughly screened by lawyers before it went to the ballot, and that is not only constitutional but defensible in court. Still, Denton will be defending it against attacks from the almighty power of the state oil and gas industry -- including that of the newly elected land commissioner, and presidential legacy, George P. Bush.
The GLO is in a time of intense uncertainty as it transitions from a Patterson to Bush administration, and Suydam says he cannot know whether or not Bush will continue action against Denton. But Bush would have a strong interest in preventing the ban. In addition to previous membership on the board of directors of Arabella Exploration, a Midland-based fracking research and development company, Bush was endorsed by the Texas Oil and Gas PAC and received thousands of campaign dollars from various industry groups across the state. The TXOGA lawsuit against Denton was filed through the law firm Baker Botts, whose partner James A. Baker III -- yes, that James Baker -- gave Bush $10,000 for his campaign.
In other words, not only will Denton face the all-encompassing wrath of the oil and gas industries in the state, they will also face that of the Bush family and the seemingly endless supply of dollars and outside donors these entities possess. Dentonites, meanwhile, will be boarding their windows against the encroaching storm, hoping their vote, and the arguments of an ambivalent city attorney, hold up in the courtroom against the Goliath industry.
"It's the city who is on the line now, the citizens have done their part," Ed Soph says, who spearheads the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. "Let's hope that the city will do its part to defend what the citizens want. It's that simple."
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