With the stroke of a pen, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on Tuesday a prohibition on local anti-fracking movements, which were to some extent supported by professional eco-activists, or “fractivists.”
“This law ensures that Texas avoids a patchwork quilt of regulations that differ from region to region, differ from county to county or city to city,” Abbott said in a statement. “HB 40 strikes a meaningful and correct balance between local control and preserving the state’s authority to ensure that regulations are even-handed and do not hamper job creation.”
Astute readers will recall that the Texas anti-fracking was kicked off when Denton, a city of 113,000 on the north end of the Dallas-Fortworth metroplex, passed an ordinance banning fracking after a 2014 referendum that passed with 59 per cent of the vote. That opened the floodgates for other municipalities, which forced the State to step in. Texas Sen. Troy Fraser and Rep. Drew Darby introduced bills in their respective houses to clarify the primacy of the State over oil and gas regulation, which is only sensible.
After a few amendments to ensure cities could properly control issues like noise and traffic, even the Texas Municipal League supported the new legislation. Though not without first having a Texas-sized spat with the Texas Oil and Gas Assoc., in which some colourful language – for lobbyists – entertained those of us following the issue.
Tom Mullikin is a lawyer active in the push back against fractivists. He says once upon a time the anti-frackers loved shale energy because of the reduced carbon emissions, but once it became clear that the shale revolution was increasing global petroleum supply, they turned against it. Mullikin says the Denton ban has served as a model for activists in other areas.
“Many of these antagonists zeroed in on the local governments as venues for introduction of onerous regulations on energy production in recent years,” he said in an interview.
“The scare tactics of these groups attempted to prey on the emotions of local elected officials who often do not have the technical staff to carefully consider the complex allegations and created a push for regulation by ambush at the local level.”
Environmental activists are supported by well-heeled national foundations like the Tides Foundation, according to Mullikin, and come armed with a bigger agenda than local folks.
“The antagonists frequently supplement – and even supplant – local activists, many of whom simply want balanced standards that address local concerns,” he said.
HB 40 should put an end to the anti-fracking movement in Texas, but what about other regions?
Fractivists started at the state level, trying to persuade governors to get on board, says Michael Whatley, a policy advisor with Washington-based Consumer Energy Alliance. They enjoyed some success with Mario Cuomo in New York, which banned fracking in late 2014, but failed in Pennsylvania, where a Democrat governor supported the industry drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
“Look at the economic activity that we’ve seen in Western Pennsylvania versus Western New York. I mean it is like crossing the Berlin Wall,” said Whaley in an interview. “I mean it really is an amazing difference in terms of the economies in the two states.”
He says the environmental community only has so much bandwidth, but they’re going to tee these fights up in every state, county by county. “This is a fight that’s going to take place over the next several years in dozens of counties and cities,” he adds.
Mullikin notes that five local governments in the Colorado Front Range corridor have enacted measures restricting shale energy production in recent years.
“These cities base their actions on home rule provisions of their respective charters,” he said. “However, two of these measures – Fort Collins and Longmont – have been struck down by state courts on the basis that the actions are preempted by state law regulating energy production.”
Other cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have seen repeated attempts to ban shale energy production. In 2014, Youngstown voters rejected a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing for the fourth time since early 2013.
Bottom line, Texas dodged a bullet. For now. Both Mullikin and Whatley worry the fractivists will find another legal loophole that will allow them to continue harassing industry.