You might think it would be hard to find opposition to fracking in the city of Denton. Not only is it in Texas, the oil and gas capital in the United States – but it lies in the very crucible of the shale gas industry itself.
It was close by, in Newark, that George P. Mitchell, the father of hydraulic fracturing, developed the technique – and the Barnett Shale, which underlies both places, became the source of the first big shale gas boom. Yet the 130,000-strong city, which has already imposed a moratorium on fracking in its territory, is now to vote on a total ban in a referendum on the day of the mid-term elections next month. If the anti-frackers win, it will be the first major city in Texas to reject the technology, and the symbolism is expected to have repercussions throughout the US.
“I have to be concerned about it” Marvin E. Odum, Chairman of Shell Oil told the New York Times, and a local Republican Texas congressman, Phil King, added: “The concern is that the antifracking community will try to take this all across the state and cities across the country and try to outlaw fracking.” And Dianne Edmondson, chair of the Denton Republican Party, who is fighting the ban, says: “If the election were held today, we would lose”.
Opposition to the technology in the city, which has some 275 gas wells, seems to have been long building among people who believe that fracking out is carried out much too close to homes. The city has changed its regulations several times to try to exert greater control and last year banned new drilling within 1,200 feet of any residence. But this does not affect existing wells, or even old ones that are redrilled.
The opponents fear health effects from pollution. The industry says that banning fracking would cause a $251 million slump in economic activity over the next decade, and lose $5.1 million in tax revenues; but so far its arguments are cutting little ice with residents.
If the referendum does vote for a ban, the state of Texas can be expected to overrule it. Rep King has said: “If it passes in Denton, I feel very confident that there will be legislation – in fact, I’ll probably file it myself – to prohibit cities from total bans on fracking”.
But the potential damage lies not in just frustrating some drilling in Denton, but in the fillip such a vote would give to the growing antifracking movement in the US. In August Colorado overruled an attempt by the city of Longmont to ban the practice, but Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has upheld cities’ rights to prohibit it, and the state of New York has not allowed it since 2008. Its a long way from Mr Mitchell’s momentous breakthrough, just down the road though it might have been.