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Texas Bans Fracking Bans

Posted in Journalism, and MintPress News

Originally published at MintPress News.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved the so-called “Denton Fracking Bill,” a proposed new law that prevents cities from exerting any local control over the energy industry.

The law is a response to a successful referendum in Denton, Texas, which banned the fracking industry from operating inside the progressive college town, located about 40 miles northwest of Dallas. Denton’s fracking ban was inspired by concerns for air and water quality, but also the fear that the industry may have caused a recent, dramatic, increase in earthquakes — a link confirmed both by local Texas scientists and a federal study by the U.S. Geological Survey that suggested fracking can activate dormant fault lines.

House Bill 40 awaits Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. A public supporter of the oil and gas industry, Abbott will almost certainly make the bill a law.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Troy Fraser, called the bill a “carefully crafted compromise” between the interests of energy and cities, but environmental advocates scoffed at the notion.

“The oil and gas industry got the better of everyone,” said Andrew Dobbs, program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, in a telephone interview with MintPress News.

The bill contains exceptions that are meant to maintain local control over issues like noise and light pollution, but Dobbs called those protections toothless.

“If you pay attention, you’ll see those exceptions are only allowed if ‘commercially reasonable,’” he said.

The definition of “commercially reasonable” is intentionally broad.

“If any particular operation feels like they cannot fully exploit their resources and do whatever they want, then the restriction isn’t commercially reasonable. It’s a smokescreen,” said Dobbs, who then added:

This is not just about fracking. It’s not just about Denton. It’s not even just about drilling. Every aspect of the energy industry is covered by this. We’re talking about production, processing, transport, disposal, everything is on the table, in every community of the state.

The widespread support in the Texas Legislature, with its strong Republican majority, may seem in opposition to the party’s stated goals of ending “big government” in favor of renewed local control. H.B. 40 shows how business interests trump party philosophy.

“Corporate money and corporate power have trumped any other principles among the Republican legislators,” Dobbs told MintPress. “They have abandoned their stated principles in order to pursue the special interests of people who are polluting Texas communities.”

Fraser, the bill’s sponsor, was named the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “top legislator in the nation” in 2006, perhaps explaining why similar model legislation has begun appearing in other states, such as Oklahoma and Florida.

“That lets you know this is a coordinated effort by powerful business interests to undermine not just local control but even state control and the public interest for the sake of private gain,” said Dobbs of the other laws.

During debate, legislators claimed they didn’t want to remove all power from local cities. This may be a way to push back against the bill, according to Dobbs:

We should put them to the test. Communities should still seek to limit oil and gas operations in a way that benefits their community and when the lawsuits pile up they need to connect the dots to their legislators and hold them accountable.

Since the Texas Legislature only meets for 140 calendar days every other year, it may be hard to reach the state’s legislators once this session ends. In the meantime, H.B. 40’s imminent passage leaves politicians on both sides of the aisle worried.

“There are lots of elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats, from across the state that have expressed a lot of concern about this bill,” said Dobbs. “We’re already seeing local governments question whether they’ll be able to protect their residents when this bill becomes law.”

Dobbs warned that the bill would deepen the state’s dependence on fossil fuels at a time when diversification and divestment are crucial to human survival.

He concluded: “It reinforces Texas’ dependence on an industry that has to change dramatically or go away if we’re going to have much of an environment left to worry about over the next decades and centuries.”