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North Texas Town Could Become First In The State To Ban Fracking


This November residents in the north Texas city of Denton are voting whether to ban the drilling method known as fracking inside their city limits. This, in the state that leads the nation in oil and gas production and as Mose Buchele of member station KUT reports, this is not your typical story of environmentalists versus industry.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: I'm at this drilling rig with Cathy McMullen. She's a nurse. She's also a leader of Frack Free Denton. That's the group pushing the ban. Here a towering blue and yellow drilling rig stands on the corner of an intersection.

CATHY MCMULLEN: I'll show you where this exact thing was sitting by somebody's home.

BUCHELE: We drive down the road and through a subdivision. Some of the homes here have been around for a while. More are under construction.

MCMULLEN: OK so where we were, just imagine that was here.

BUCHELE: We get out where a well's been fracked, meaning water and chemicals were pumped into the ground to break up the shale rock and release natural gas. Now there's a wellhead sitting here. There are tan metal tubes sticking out of the ground next to some storage tanks.

MCMULLEN: And at any time they can come back and frack this well. So these people could all be here and then they will just see all the trucks coming to this area here and when they wake up two, three or four days later, there's going to be a big huge site sitting right there and there will be nothing they can do about it.

BUCHELE: Now, if the ban was in place, that would make it harder to frack this well?

MCMULLEN: They could not frack this well again.

BUCHELE: The ban would end the noise and traffic that come along with drilling and the pollution. Drillers have had to pay settlements and court-ordered fines to families who've gotten sick and blame the drilling operations.

MCMULLEN: This is the argument. This is the argument.

BUCHELE: As for the other side of that argument...


BUCHELE: It's just a phone call away.

BOBBY JONES: Hello. I'm Bobby Jones. My family's had this property for over 72 years.

BUCHELE: Bobby Jones is the co-chair of Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, the group opposing the ban. He's a rancher and owns a construction company. He also owns mineral rights within the city limits.

JONES: As I sit here and talk to you, I'm standing in my driveway approximately 300 feet from my well here. We've had absolutely no health problems at all.

BUCHELE: For Jones, the natural gas under his land is money in the bank.

JONES: It would help some grandkids probably go to college and it could help a lot of things, but you know, they are potentially taking it away from us.

BUCHELE: Denton has found itself at the center of a nationwide debate over the safety of fracking, the tax revenue it generates and the role cities play in regulating it. Money has poured in from the oil and gas industry to defeat the proposal. Texas oil and gas regulators have suggested Russia may be secretly supporting the ban. Advocates laughed, declaring they are not secret agents, but to see this in terms of party politics would be a mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome the Denton Republican Women's Club meeting. We have a very exciting topic, a controversial topic that is going to be discussed today so we're going to move pretty quickly.

BUCHELE: At a recent meeting at a downtown restaurant, conservative activist Debbie Terry said she was on the fence about the ban, but still had this to say.

DEBBIE TERRY: I'm a Newt Gingrich, drill-baby-drill kind of person. So I support drilling, unfortunately. And it sounds very self-serving - I don't want it in my backyard.

BUCHELE: If enough voters feel the same, Denton could become the first city in Texas to ban fracking. State and local officials have warned lawsuits will follow, challenging the ban in court.

For NPR News I'm Mose Buchele. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.