In 2014, the City of Denton had a problem: natural gas pad sites were springing up all over town. There were over 300 gas wells within city limits alone. By that time, the connection between fracking and seismic activity had been scientifically well-established, so Denton’s citizens were concerned. They decided to act: they participated in democracy at a neighborhood level. They gathered enough petition signatures to put a ban on fracking within city limits on the ballot. Despite aggressive tactics from industry groups – they outspent the ban supporters by 10 to 1 in trying to persuade voters not to adopt the ban - the measure passed by a wide margin: 59% to 41% in November of that year. It was a classic case of grassroots effort beating corporate money in a democratic contest.
There was a victory party, but the victory was short-lived. The next day, the Texas Oil and Gas Association filed a petition for injunctive relief, and the following May, the Texas Legislature passed HB 40, the compellingly-named “Relating to the exclusive jurisdiction of this state to regulate oil and gas operations in this state and the express preemption of local regulation of those operations.”
Upon signing, Governor Greg Abbott said the intent of the bill was to prevent “a patchwork of local regulations” from preventing oil and gas production.
I’m a businessman. “A patchwork of local regulations” is one of those environmental factors that a business has to learn to deal with, or perish. Any business that can’t manage its way around a patchwork of local regulations has no right to be in business. I suspect that oil and gas companies have sufficient internal resources to manage patchworks, and if they don’t, they can afford to hire a patchwork analyst.
When it comes to a community’s people determining for themselves how to manage their natural resources versus corporations using outsized power to put the kibosh on democracy – folks, I may be a businessman, but I’m always going to side with democracy.
The war on local control has continued since: the 85th legislative session saw multiple state-led attacks on local control on several fronts, from trees to bathrooms to ride-sharing applications, but most particularly on a community’s ability to raise property taxes if needed – a need that’s ironically been made more acute in the past few years as the state reduces its contributions to public education, but that’s another blog topic! – and the legislative approach from Abbott and the Legislature has been directive, not cooperative. I believe there’s a better way: the relationship between the state and the communities that it serves should be an ongoing negotiation. I further believe that in issues of natural resources, the community’s voice should carry the most weight. Those closest to a resource know best how it should be used. Their voices should be heard.