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Texas Town Sues to Uphold Fracking Ban, Protect Democracy
The little guys aren't taking this one lying down. In November, voters in Denton, Texas—fed up with oil and gas drilling companies unwilling to work with citizens to put some reasonable protections in place and with state and local regulators for allowing new fracking wells near homes, schools, parks and hospitals—passed a ban on fracking, despite being hugely outspent. The Texas Oil and Gas Association, representing the fracking companies, and the state's General Land Office responded with lawsuits to protect their "right" to push fracking on unwilling residents.
Now Denton is fighting back with lawsuits of its own. Yesterday, with the fracking ban taking effect on Tuesday, the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (DAG) and Earthworks, the groups that led the Frack Free Denton ballot initiative, filed intervention papers in both lawsuits, seeking to assert the right of citizens to decide what happens in their own neighborhoods. The groups are represented by the Texas local government law firm Brown & Hofmeister; attorneys from national environmental organizations Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council are asking the permission of the court to act as co-counsel.
“Denton residents, with Republican and Democratic majorities, voted overwhelmingly to ban fracking,” said DAG president Cathy McMullen. “Our city has the legal power to prevent bakeries from setting up shop in residential neighborhoods. To suggest that we don’t have the legal power to similarly bar fracking, a much more dangerous process, is the height of industry arrogance.”
“The state and industry could have respected Denton communities’ health, safety and property,” said Earthworks’ energy program director Bruce Baizel. “They chose not to. The ban is the result. Now, rather than constructively engage with the community, they simply overlook their regulatory failure and move to overturn democracy through legal action.”
At issue is whether local communities have the right to regulate oil and gas operations within their borders or whether, as the lawsuits by the oil and gas interests claim, Denton's voter-approved ordinance is overridden by state regulators in contradiction of Texas' long tradition of home rule authority over gas and oil development. There are many other local oil and gas regulations in effect across Texas, including in Dallas just to the south of Denton, which seems to contradict the contention of the frack-friendly interests.
"The State of Texas has granted municipalities the right to oversee oil and gas operations," Earthjustice managing attorney Deborah Goldberg pointed out. "The people of Denton have exercised that right, and we intend to help preserve it. Communities from California to Texas to New York are fed up with the abuses of the oil and gas industry. When state and federal officials won’t stand up for the public, citizens must have the right to use local democracy to protect themselves.”
“This fight cuts to the heart of our democracy, and it is far from over," said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Dan Raichel. "The people of Denton have voted to keep fracking away from their homes and schools—they will not be bullied by powerful oil and gas companies that want to make a profit at the expense of their health. Denton is a pioneer in Texas, but it is not alone. This community joins hundreds of others around the country—and in Texas—that are demanding the right to determine what happens within their own borders."
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The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
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"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
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