Words are strong tools we use to convey a message to others. Messages that are often intended to influence people to see one side of an issue over that of another equally important issue. The public is not well-served when the use of hyperbole and deliberate omission of words are used in a message that aims to undermine the bigger picture.
Proponents of Texas’ HB40, the bill created specifically to target the actions of fracking ban supporters in Denton, Texas, have begun a misleading campaign to justify killing local control. The alliance within Texas government and the private sector that oppose efforts to limit drilling in densely populated areas have omitted, distorted and concealed facts that puts self-interests and profits over the general welfare of a community and the lives of families that reside therein.
George Orwell wrote years ago that “political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It is in this frame of reference we find language amongst pro-fracking advocates and within the petitions of the Texas Oil and Gas Association’s (TXOGA) and the Texas General Land Office (GLO) who seek to enhance dubious wording granting the state authority over mineral rights so the can kill the Denton fracking ban. An ordinance approved last November by nearly 60% of the vote. I have taken the time to expose the “pure wind” of this language and hopefully fuel a desire for concerned citizens to confront those who use it and who would weaken our representative form of government.
In reality there is little beyond the natural self-interests of a handful of property owners in Denton, Texas exploiting their mineral rights for income to justify the process of extracting oil and gas from the shale rock far below the surface. Claims beyond this by industry representatives and their advocates in the state legislature are often over the top in their attempt to shut down reasonable home rule measures by cities. The explosion of natural gas wells being drilled in the Barnett Shale are becoming dangerously close to homes, schools and parks and the rights of these property owners are now in conflict with arcane laws that protect the mineral rights of other property owners.
Our energy needs are important for all Americans and having adequate sources to meet those needs requires huge measures to not only locate energy resources but to develop them for use and transfer them to homes and businesses. It is this critical point that tends to override other factors however that are also relevant to the public at large but are dismissed or ignored by industry and government officials for inflated fears that jobs could be lost and profits will suffer. Yet the welfare of all citizens is at risk when health and safety aspects involved in providing fossil fuel sources of energy – i.e. coal, oil and gas – are hidden to prevent an informed citizenry from effecting necessary change.
This set the stage for Denton voters as they went to the polls last November and voted to ban fracking within their city limits. This course of action was a last resort effort that followed earlier citizen actions that made great efforts to persuade drillers and their private property hosts to monitor air pollution and establish setbacks within reasonable distances from places where families lived, went to school and played.
The gas and oil industry along with property owners who wanted to take advantage of their mineral rights took affront to this grass root movement, claiming they were being discriminated against by a larger number of property owners. Property owners who by way felt that heavy truck traffic, toxic fumes and chemicals and tainted waste water disposal practices were threatening not only their home’s dollar value but the general health and well-being of children and other susceptible family members with respiratory problems like asthma and COPD.
Vigorously touting their rights as a minority was intended to gain sympathy from the general population while downplaying how their rights threatened the health and safety of their neighbors. Neighbors, as I mentioned earlier, who tried to work with oil and gas interests prior to putting a fracking ban on the ballot that would respect concerns about contamination risks to air and water quality near homes, schools and parks.
A GOVERNOR WHO PUTS MONEYED SPECIAL INTERESTS OVER TEXANS
Some have said HB40 was necessary to overcome what Texas Governor Greg Abbot has called “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.” This really makes no sense when you consider that few Texans criss-cross the state in routine fashion for this to create any discomfort. And what exactly is the “Texas model”? One where crony-capitalism dominates the legislature and the governor’s mansion?
What Abbot and his special interests cronies were attempting here was to raise the ire of red-state Texans by fabricating a threat that would push the emotional buttons of conservative voters, comparing Texas to the more liberal state of California. Never mind that such local rule ordinances were essentially harmless. The state allows cities to enact rules and regulations that enhance life there provided they don’t violate the state’s constitution. But as we’ll soon see, the notion that a limited fracking ban in Denton posed a threat that “undermines [the] comprehensive state system regulating oil and gas development” as alleged in a lawsuit by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, is a straw man allegation that has led to excessive overreach by state government.
THE EMBELLISHED LAWSUITS THAT SEEK TO UNDERMINE LOCAL CONTROL
Two agencies, the private sector Texas Oil and Gas Association (TXOGA) and the state’s Texas General Land Office (GLO) wasted no time in trying to kill Denton’s fracking ban shortly after the November ballot initiative succeeded. Fearing that current legislation didn’t have the teeth it needed, they threatened lawsuits hoping the City Council would once again back down. What follows is a critique of the language used by these two petitioners that engages in hyperbole and deceit to bolster their claims attempting to offset the very real health and safety threats drilling in densely populated areas pose.
The TXOGA petition asserts that the Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are the only ones designated by the state to set regulations that are assigned the responsibility to achieve an “overriding policy objective of the safe, efficient, even-handed, and non-wasteful development of this State’s oil and gas resources. Both agencies are staffed with experts in the field who apply uniform regulatory controls across Texas and thereby avoid the inconsistencies that necessarily result from short-term political interests, funding, and turnover in local government.”
This glowing account of these two oversight agencies gives the misleading impression that they are abundantly staffed, out in force and always there to correct the many problems oil and gas drilling poses using heavy duty equipment and toxic chemicals. And if by “safe” you mean ignoring findings that have shown oil and gas air pollution is “ongoing, chronic, and unaddressed in Denton, Texas” then one would have to question the credibility of the TXOGA
Sharon Wilson who monitors the activities of the TRRC and the TCEQ posted a thorough report on her Bluedaze blog in 2012 that seriously conflicts with TXOGA’s presumption of safety regulations.
In association with twelve Texas groups, national resource extraction watchdog Earthworks today released an unprecedented study, Breaking All the Rules: The Crisis in Oil & Gas Regulation revealing that states across the country fail to enforce their oil and gas development regulations. The one-year, in-depth examination of enforcement data and practices — in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, New Mexico and Colorado — also includes interviews with ex-industry and state agency employees.
Among the study’s findings —
– 296,000 active oil and gas wells in Texas were uninspected in 2011.
– Companies that are found in violation of regulations are rarely penalized: in 2012, only two percent of violations have been penalized to date.
– Penalties are so weak that it is cheaper for violators to pay the penalty than comply with the law: the total value of financial penalties in Texas in 2009 was less than the value of the gas contained in a newly drilled gas well. SOURCE
Recently the TECQ was found to have “worked behind closed doors with the state’s electric power trade association and utility companies to weaken standards for air pollution control permits.” Not to be outdone the TRRC has a serious conflict of interests issue with accepting large donations from the very industries the Commission is supposed to regulate.
The TXOGA’s petition also makes the fraudulent claim that the Denton ban on fracking “prevents any member of TXOGA from developing its oil and gas properties indefinitely”. How a local ban in Denton can any prevent “any member of TXOGA from developing [their] oil and gas properties” outside the city of Denton is beyond comprehension. But again the ploy here, like Gov. Abbot’s “patchwork” comment, is to frighten misinformed Texans rather than educate them.
The hyperbole doesn’t end here however. The TXOGA describes the City of Denton as lying “on top of the Barnett Shale” In reality Denton sets on the eastern edge of the Barnett shale (see image below) and is just one of about 17 counties that sit atop of this organic-rich shale formation.
There are less than 300 gas wells that actually sit within the Denton city limits (281 to be exact) as of June 1, 2015. By one count there are about 15,000 gas wells in Barnett shale alone. Thousands more exist south of here in the Eagle Ford Shale formation. So for TXOGA to presume that 2% of gas wells in the Barnett shale and an even smaller proportion of gas wells – 0.3% – in the entire state of Texas (97,618 according to 2013 data by the USEIA) are somehow undermining the state’s system of regulating oil and gas development is ludicrous.
Though the TXOGA’s claim that “the ban will result in the total inability to develop hydrocarbon interests within the City” this doesn’t mean that Denton will be unable to access those hydrocarbon products we need to fuel our cars or heat our homes and businesses. Remember these products are produced around the country and around the world and the fact that a fraction of hydrocarbon resources are no longer a part of that global mix doesn’t mean we will suffer any energy shortages.
Let’s not forget either that hydrocarbons alone are not the only viable sources of energy, not only for Denton, but Texas and the rest of the country as well. Denton was recognized in 2011 by the National Resources Defense Council as being “the city with the most wind power per capita in the country”
The wind energy supplied to most of Denton’s citizens through the Denton Municipal Electric Utility provides up to 40% of the electricity households and businesses use, keeping prices very competitive with other Texas utility companies. Using clean energy sources over dirtier hydrocarbon sources has allowed Denton to “avoid the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions of 61.3 million gallons of gasoline each year.” And yet the GOP-controlled Texas Senate recently voted “to end its nearly 16-year old renewable energy program that also featured credits in wind energy production”.
It will probably come as no surprise to find that senate bill was introduced by Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) whose largest campaign donor in 2012 was the oil and gas industry. Sen. Fraser, who has used most of his campaign money to augment an opulent lifestyle, is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that puts state legislators and business special interests in the same closed-doors room who draw up model legislation favoring those special interests to be presented on House and Senate floors. This private organizations also contributed to Fraser’s campaign in the amount of $315,000 between 2004 and 2011.
And then there is the petition from the Texas General Land Office that leads off with the lofty declaration that “Commissioner [Jerry] Patterson and the GLO have the sacred and solemn responsibility to the school children of Texas to manage oil and gas leases for state-owned mineral interests and state-owned lands within the City of Denton”.
If only we could pass this solemn and sacred responsibility idea off to the legislature who actually decides how property taxes will fund education in Texas. It was their failure back in 2007 to adequately forecast funding needs for Texas schools that resulted in underfunding, costing districts money to sustain teacher salaries and supply costs. As a result, class sizes grew, meaning less one-on-one education was taking place in Texas classroom. But I digress
As Commissioner Patterson points out in section 4.1 of his petition (see below), income from oil and gas leases is really fractional once you realize that only the interests on the revenue raised (about 10%) is paid out to school districts across the state. As Adam Briggle with the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (DAG) has pointed out, the revenue lost by shutting down all gas wells in Denton city proper would amount to about 2 cents per student.
4.1 Deposits to the PSF would be an inexhaustible source of revenue because only interest income from the fund could be spent and would be apportioned among the state’s public schools for the benefit of all school children of Texas.
The use of the word “inexhaustible” is a bit misleading too when you realize that interests off of a principle that stops growing doesn’t equate into vast sums of funds as time goes by. Consider the following likely scenario.
If Texas education funding relies on property values and oil and gas drilling near homes devalues that property, won’t we actually see a loss of revenue in this area? Also, as these wells deplete, which they do at a rapid rate by one estimate, the revenue Jerry Patterson and the GLO pay out to school districts becomes stagnant rather than increasing as school populations grow.
The point being, trying to frighten voters about fracking’s affect on school funding is just that – a scare tactic to get voters to support the industry’s desire to override fracking bans where they threaten the health and safety of families in densely populated areas.
The GLO petition steps into deceitful territory along with a bit of hyperbole in section 4.10 when it states that Denton’s “Prohibition purports to make hydraulic fracturing undertaken on GLO lands unlawful and, as a consequence, would cost the PSF and other state entities millions of dollars in lost revenues. The Prohibition against hydraulic fracturing will completely destroy the value of the school kids’ minerals.”
Denton’s fracking ban DOES NOT affect other “GLO lands” outside our city limits and the presumption that all Public School Fund (PSF) money would be completely destroyed is preposterous. Patterson himself points that GLO “lands generate funds primarily through oil and gas revenues”, indicating that other means can serve this fund without fracking shale oil and gas.
In section 4.11 the GLO petition points out that “The Railroad Commission of Texas is solely responsible for the prevention of pollution of surface and subsurface water resulting from activities associated with the exploration, development, and production of oil or gas” and that “No home-rule ordinance shall contain any provision inconsistent with the general laws enacted by the Legislature of this State.” (4.12)
The idea that Denton’s fracking ban meets this criteria has yet to be determined in a court of law but what are local residents supposed to do when the agencies responsible for our health and safety fail to fulfill their mission and have demonstrated that they work more closely with the very industry they’re supposed to regulate and monitor. (See notes above)
Perhaps the single most outlandish declaration in the GLO’s petition (5.3) is its claim that the vote to ban fracking in Denton was “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable”. In light of the years of efforts preceding the action to put a fracking ban on the 2014 ballot where informed and concerned citizens tried to work with the industry and the city to meet reasonable and specific request that would reduce the health and safety threats inherent in drilling to their neighborhood, it is an insult for a representative of the state to vilify the actions of voters in this manner.
Denton resident Cathy McMullen first tried to work with the city and industry representatives back in 2009 as she “organized rallies, raised money for environmental testing and attended city council meetings to stop the drilling operation near her home”. But when the oil and gas industry threatened the City of Denton with a lawsuit, the city council backed down.
This motivated her to join forces with others in her community like University of North Texas assistant professor Adam Briggle and environmental activist Sharon Wilson of Earthworks. They formed a committee in 2011 known as the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, DAG for short, and set out to change city ordinances that worked to benefit both homeowners and those who allowed drillers to exploit their mineral rights for income. When this failed to achieve any parity, then, and only then, did they work to get the fracking ban on the 2014 November ballot. It was from this initiative that I and hundreds of others joined with DAG to be part of the Frack Free Denton movement.
The language throughout this petition as well as the petition of the TXOGA is itself “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable”. Hyperbole and legal mumbo jumbo permeate the entire document in order to conceal the fact that what is actually going on with oil and gas drilling in Texas is less solemn and sacred than it is appeasing the special interests of the oil and gas industry.
I HATE THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT EXCEPT WHEN IT SUPPORTS MY VIEW
Lastly, people who’ve rejected efforts by the EPA to reduce toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants in Texas are now scrambling to prop up an EPA report they claim suggests there is no alarm about fracking’s effect on drinking water. Media groups who have sided with the pro-fracking position have cherry picked the study’s single statement that implies there is no real problem with the fracking process and how it affects drinking water. That statement reads, “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.”. People like Stuart Varney with FOX News said that when he read that statement he “ took that as the conclusion of the EPA report.”
But as his guest Josh Fox of Gasland fame and others have pointed out, the EPA’s report underscores a dilemma, where “the process creates several key vulnerabilities that could potentially undermine the health of drinking water in the United States.”
But what Stuart Varney and Industry groups who are quick to tout the report as proof of fracking’s safety fail to acknowledge is that citing this quote from the report gives it little credence. At the bottom of each page of the Executive Summary is the caveat that reads “This document is a draft for review purposes only and does not constitute Agency policy” DRAFT – DO NOT CITE OR QUOTE. This of course doesn’t take away insights from those who put the report together but it warns that the report does not serve as a mandate or some ultimate authority on the issue.
Since profracking groups often dismiss such deception then let’s cite something the report does say that equally weakens their view of the EPA study.
We do not address other concerns raised about hydraulic fracturing specifically or about oil and gas exploration and production activities more generally. Activities that are not considered include: acquisition and transport of constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluids besides water (e.g., sand mining and chemical production) outside of the stated water cycle, cite selection and well pad development; other infrastructure development (e.g., roads, pipelines, compress or stations); site reclamation; and well closure. A summary and evaluation of current or proposed regulations and policies is beyond the scope of this report. Additionally, this report does not discuss the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on other water users (e.g., agriculture or industry), other aspects of the environment (e.g., seismicity, air quality, or ecosystems), worker health or safety, or communities. Furthermore, this report is not a human health risk assessment. It does not identify populations that are exposed to chemicals, estimate the extent of exposure, or estimate the incidence of human health impacts. Executive Summary pp 3-4
In other words, so much is not covered in the EPA study that for anyone to conclude that the fracking process poses no serious health and safety threat is simply being dishonest and disingenuous. It is safe to assume too that most people who support fracking are also of the ideological bent that hates the federal government and its regulatory agencies. By shamelessly using this EPA report for self-serving purposes, many proponents of HB40 have aided and abetted the predatory capitalists who would supplant our representative form of government for something that better serves their needs – a plutocracy.
Meanwhile, for-profit special interests have gained one more advantage to suppress the vote of Texas citizens. HB40 is a bad bill that needs to be repealed.
Representative government is slowly giving way to corporate special interests