If you've driven up I-35 to Denton in the last month, you may have seen one of the many billboards popping up around town. The billboards loudly proclaim the economic damage that a city ordinance banning natural gas and oil drilling could cause to the city, and encourage residents to vote against the fracking ban on November 4.
The billboards are just the beginning. Recently, Denton residents have been inundated by a deluge of mail campaigns, phone surveys, and local billboard advertisements discouraging the ban, and one resident, Heidi Klein, says pro-drilling advocates are going door to door to lobby against the ban. The phone survey that Klein, and many fellow Denton residents, report receiving last week is particularly disturbing:
"I was equal parts completely flabbergasted and amused at the things they were coming up with," Klein says. "They invoked Putin and Russia, brought up city leaders, the people that were spearheading Frack-Free Denton, anybody that had to do with the ban and tried to link them with some nefarious cause and make it political."
"They talked about the Obama administration being behind this, and linked Al Jazeera and Al-qaeda. And I had to give an opinion on different figures, if I was for or against them. They said something like, if you knew that Putin was in contact with the city to pass the ban, would you still support it? So they were setting up these preposterous links."
And companies are pouring money into the counter-campaign. "XTO Energy, Devon Energy, and EverVest each gave $75,000 [toward local advertising], and practically none of that is local money," says Sharon Wilson, an employee with Earthworks and avid blogger on the Denton anti-fracking movement. "I think Frack Free Denton has taken in about $50,000. And almost $30,000 of that came from Earthworks. But over 90 percent of our contributions came from people with a Denton address."
In a recent press release, the Lewisville-based Institute for Policy Innovation attacked Frack Free Denton for receiving substantial funding from Earthworks. "Today we've learned that the majority of funding for the Frack Free Denton group has come from out-of-town environmental extremist groups such as EarthWorks. This is no surprise, and there's nothing wrong with taking outside funds for your cause. But there IS something wrong with claiming to be entirely a grassroots movement within the City of Denton, when that's clearly not the case," says Tom Giovanetti, president of IPI and an outspoken opponent of the ban.
But Wilson says many Denton residents give money indirectly to Frack Free Denton through EarthWorks, because they are afraid of retaliation from drilling advocates. Wilson says she has personally received death threats in the past, and Frack Free Denton members have received two anonymous death threats in the last month.
"Some of the threats I've received have been from industry workers, people who worked in the industry. Companies incite this, by telling workers that we're trying to take their jobs and their livelihoods. I've taped them saying these things," she says. "I think the industry uses fear tactics against their employees and against the people who oppose them. That's one reason why people would decide to give to Earthworks rather than Frack Free Denton, because their names are not going to show up on campaign finance documents."
The well-funded counter campaign by drilling proponents is intimidating, and not a little discouraging: Next to looming billboards, daily mail campaigns, and substantial tv and radio air time, Frack Free Denton yard signs, t-shirts, and bumper stickers -- which have cropped up all over the city -- are flimsy by comparison. Yet the aggressiveness with which drilling advocates are targeting the anti-fracking movement indicates big-dollar companies are just as intimidated and perturbed by a potential ban.
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"They're desperate. They have behaved so horribly in Denton. They have bullied people, mistreated people, and the people in Denton are tired of it," says Wilson. "But when you expose their dirty tactics, they're kind of like cockroaches -- they can't stand the light."
And speaking from her home, where she could walk to McKenna Park and closely adjacent Rayzor Ranch gas wells, Klein is also hopeful that Denton voters will be unswayed by the counter-campaign efforts.
"I think the industry underestimates the population of Denton. There are a lot of really bright people here. Denton voters don't always have the greatest turnout at the polls, but those who do come out are generally very well-informed," she says. "I am so proud of my community right now, that we can do something like this. So you know what? Let these guys keep putting stuff in my mailbox. I don't think it's changing anyone's mind."