By the time Denton's city offices opened this morning, officials already had two brand new lawsuits waiting for them. As Denton's attorneys begin the weary post-election process of sorting through a legal defense against this inevitable barrage of suits, it's clear the battle over the ban on fracking voters approved Tuesday has just begun.
Denton's proposed fracking ban, which had gained national attention in the last few weeks, passed Tuesday night in a landslide: 59 percent of voters favored the ban, while just 41 percent voted against. This is despite ban opponents far out-spending and out-advertising anti-frackers. Frack Free Denton raised just $75,000 for its campaign, compared with $700,000 spent by pro-fracking groups.
But now that the morning-after glow of victory has subsided, the City of Denton must face the mighty backlash of the oil and gas industry. City spokesperson Lindsey Baker confirms that the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the General Land Office are the first so far, though most decidedly not the last, to lash out against the ban.
Cathy McMullen, the president of Frack Free Denton, says that the city had been prepping for a legal fight should the ban pass. Now that it has, she expects a good fight. Although city attorney Anita Burgess has previously expressed her opposition to the ban, the city will likely include outside counsel as, in accordance with Denton voters' wishes, it fights now to keep the ban.
"I believe that with the margin of the voters who approve this, all we've been threatened with is lawsuits. And the consensus is that the fight is worth it," says McMullen. "It's a legally defensible ordinance. If there was any way it wasn't, it would never have gotten to the voters. So we know it's defensible and we know its constitutional."
McMullen says the city has only about $4 million in its legal budget. And with the vast majority of residents in favor of the ban, and Mayor Chris Watts' outspoken support, the city will defend the ban to the end.
"We have to work together to protect ourselves," McMullen says. "We've struggled for the last five years to protect ourselves, and I think people should know that this was the epitome of a true grassroots effort."
On the opposite side of the table, opponents are just rolling up their sleeves to begin the fight. "The ban is legally vulnerable," says Tom Giovanetti, president of the Lewisville-based think tank Institute for Policy Innovation, who has been an outspoken opponent to the ban. "If you take away the drilling you take out all the value from the property, there's nothing left. So I think the ban is extremely precarious from a legal standpoint."
It's a legal argument, Giovanetti says, that Denton should expect from every major oil and gas company in the state, plus the state of Texas itself. "This election was decided on junk science and baseless fear," he says. "This was Act 1 last night. And the next few acts are going to take place in the courts."