We were a small Texas town that banned fracking -- then the oil industry stepped in

Standing up to big oil, Denton citizens voted in a landslide to ban fracking. We were determined to uphold that ban

Published September 7, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

  (©2015 Julie Dermansky)
(©2015 Julie Dermansky)

“Shit, the cops are here,” Jon said from behind the wheel. Our scouts had given the all clear just a few minutes ago, but now two police cars were blocking the road, red and blue lights flashing in the morning’s early glow.

With characteristic composure, Jon made a quick decision and jerked the wheel of the Mazda down a narrow road through the neighborhood by the fracking site. Children were walking to the school bus and stared in our windows as we drove by. Maggie got a text message and announced from the back seat that police were also blocking the road on the other end of the site.  

“How are we going to get through?” I was panicked, and looked back over my shoulder at the tense faces of Tara Linn and Niki, jammed with Maggie in the back seat.

“We’ll figure it out,” Jon said as he pulled over at the end of a cul de sac and started calling the scouts. A van followed us down the street. “It’s the homies,” Maggie said, referring to a group of young friends and fracking activists who had come out to help us. They parked across the street from us and nodded nonchalantly in our direction.

It was 6:30 a.m. on June 1 in Denton, Texas, and we had come to defend our fracking ban. Last November, Denton citizens voted in a landslide to ban hydraulic fracturing (an oil and gas well stimulation technique that can be invasive and toxic). The ban was our last option after years of trying to accommodate an industry that refused to compromise. In January 2013, we passed rules to keep fracking away from residential areas. But in September of that year, they kept on fracking less than 200 feet from homes.

Gas well operators and industry representatives claimed they didn’t have to follow local rules, because they held more than 11,000 acres of Denton territory that were grandfathered under old laws written long before the impacts of fracking were understood. Without the ban, we feared our local regulations would be trampled again and again. It would be spell mass neighborhood industrialization across our town.

The Denton fracking ban shocked the world: We were a small Texas town that stood up to big oil and gas despite the fact that they outspent our grass-roots group 15 to 1. The industry sued the city the morning after the vote. Fearing that the ban would be upheld under the existing legal regime, however, they put most of their efforts into a legislative end run, using their outsize influence in Austin to change the rules of the game. Over the next several months the industry bought itself a new law. Known widely as HB 40, it declares that the state of Texas expressly preempts (trumps) regulations written by local governments. Cities and towns can only pass laws that the industry deems to be “commercially reasonable.”

HB 40 has been talked about as a ban on local fracking bans, but the impetus behind it is far more nefarious. It is an attempt to upend the long Texas tradition of local control over oil and gas, a tradition that prioritized community well-being over profits. It is the product of forces that are trying to disenfranchise communities across the state and roll back hard-won protections for health and safety. The industry is setting the stage for a renewed onslaught of fracking once they begin exporting liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia where they can make much more money than on the saturated domestic market.

Tara Linn and I are members of the group that spearheaded the Frack Free Denton campaign. Niki and Tara Linn are two of the “Frackettes,” a parody singing troupe they created to mock the propaganda the industry had cooked up during the months leading up to the vote on the ban (at one point even claiming that I had “direct ties” to the Russian government). The plan on that June morning was for the three of us to blockade the access road to the frack site. Others would support us and take pictures. I had Maggie’s phone number written on my arm in case I needed to call her later about bail. But now the whole plan looked like it might fall through.

Sitting in the car, I watched the clock tick to 6:35. In 25 minutes, Vantage Energy would start fracking the first wells in Denton since the ban passed. We couldn’t sit back and just let that happen. I had stayed up past 2 a.m. polishing a post that would go live on Facebook in two hours. In it, I wrote, that “A just law would give those exposed to the harms of fracking a meaningful voice. An unjust law would subordinate those voices to the dictates of the powerful and wealthy. HB 40 is an unjust law.”

“All right,” Jon said as he put his phone back in his pocket. “Here’s the plan. There’s a little road up ahead that can get us close to the site. From there, we’ll just have to hope we can scurry to the gate before we are seen.”

We pulled up to the end of another residential street and I got out of the car, my body shaking with adrenaline. The air was still crisp and the grass was covered in dew. The homies pulled “the ordinance” out of the van – it was a 6-foot-wide piece of particle board with the preamble of our fracking ban painted on it. We were going to affix the giant ordinance to the gates of the site, so that the industry would have to literally rip apart our democratic vote in order to commence with fracking.

Everyone milled around aimlessly for a moment, trying to steel our nerves. Niki, Tara Linn and I decided against bringing our pillows with us, figuring we may not be on the site very long, if at all. Suddenly, Theo, a member of the support team, grabbed the ordinance with both hands and started to jog across a little ditch separating us from Nail Road, where the access gate was located. “Let’s do this!” he said looking over his shoulder at us as he lugged the ordinance through the wet grass. I turned to Tara Linn and she smiled at me before we made a run for it.  

We got to the road in between the two police checkpoints about 50 yards from the gate. Because of the way the road curved we couldn’t see either checkpoint, and it appeared that we hadn’t been spotted. We didn’t know whether to run or walk, so we walked fast, hearts pounding. I caught up to Niki and Tara Linn and we held hands as we followed Jon to the site. There was one police car parked on the large concrete pad on the side of the road in front of the gate, but as we got close we heard Jon say, “There’s no one inside!”

At that point we broke into a sprint to get into our positions. The three of us sat down in front of the gate and linked our arms together. Just then, we saw a police officer running toward us as Jon walked slowly in his direction with his hands out and visible. When the officer got to us, he said, “Oh, Dr. Briggle!” He was clearly surprised to see me. After years of giving wonkish policy recommendations at city council meetings, I was now sitting near the cattle guard in front of a frack site. Next he turned to Tara Linn and said, “Ms. Hunter, I’m a big fan of the Frackettes.” He then stood back and said to the crowd, “Go ahead and take your pictures.”

When it comes to fracking, the biggest question is often not what the rules should be but rather who should write the rules. This is the jurisdictional battle at the heart of debates about local control. Should it be the state or cities?

The issue of local control has its roots in the emergence of modern cities and their relationship with centralized organs of power like the crown. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes argued that we must have a Leviathan, a single ruler, to quash disagreements and ensure peace. For Hobbes, the thought of a bunch of cities making their own rules was anathema. It would just gum up the works. He lamented “the immoderate greatness” of towns in the commonwealth and saw cities as deviants, lesser communities in the bowels of a greater community like “wormes in the entrayles of a naturall man.” They are forever “Disputing against absolute Power . . . [and] medling with the Fundamentall Lawes.”

These are the origins of contemporary talk by the industry and our legislators in Austin about the need for “regulatory certainty” and the supposed ills of a “patchwork of local regulations.” I couldn’t help thinking of Austin as the Leviathan – ironic given all the lip service paid down there to small government. From the perspective of the state, Denton (or any other city on the shale) is not a community – it’s a node on an energy network.

Soon there were about 20 protesters on site holding banners and signs, breaking out in spontaneous chants. There must have been at least eight police officers there too. A few of them started issuing verbal warnings that we were trespassing and needed to vacate the premises. Other officers were talking through the window of a pickup truck with its driver who had stopped in front of our seated bodies. Two large tanker trucks had pulled up behind him and were parked on Nail Road, which runs alongside the entrance gate to the frack site.  

The chief of police, Lee Howell, is a friend of my family and he briefly checked in on us. I thanked him for the way his team was handling the situation and assured him our intentions were peaceful. I would later learn he had been texting my wife, Amber, from his position at the southern police checkpoint on Nail Road. He let her know I was all right and even apologized for the fact that it appeared he was going to have to arrest me.

After a while, the police cleared everyone off the concrete pad except for Niki, Tara Linn and me. Sgt. Jenkins, with 30 years of service in Denton, leaned over one more time to issue a final warning and hand us a notice of criminal trespass. He stepped to the side to let us talk it over, but we were determined. We spoke not a word, and just kept staring at the bumpers of the trucks and the rooftops of the homes in the neighborhood across the street. A protester called out in a friendly, teasing voice from the side of the road, “You know you’re about to arrest the Frackettes!” The sergeant, leaning against his police cruiser, hollered back, “I know, it’s killing me!”

A few minutes later, our time was up and Sgt. Jenkins asked if I would walk under my own power or if they were going to have to drag me away. I said I would walk with them and for the first time I choked up as I tried to express my gratitude for their service. The sergeant leaned down and shook my hand, saying, “Thanks for all you’ve done for Denton.” Then I was put in handcuffs and escorted to the police car.

Tara Linn and Niki were also put in handcuffs, except theirs were pink. They joined me in the back of the police car and we drove away down Nail Road toward the city jail. I watched the neighborhood slip by out the window, trying to see the home where we had collected a water sample just a few days ago. The last time fracking happened in this area, the community well water turned oily and cloudy. This time if it happened again we would have a baseline sample to establish causality.

At jail, the officers took our mug shots and fingerprints. Tara Linn and Niki were put in a cell with the message “Hey girli, stay cool” scrawled in black ink on the ceiling. I was assigned to a cell down the hall, a Spartan concrete cube with a white metal door that slammed closed behind me. We were each issued a blanket and a rubber mattress to set in the metal frames of the bunk beds.

As I lay exhausted on my mattress I could hear the Frackettes singing down the hall, measured and powerful with voices in a harmony that flowed right through the concrete walls:

People gonna rise like the water

Gonna slow this chaos down.

I hear the voice of my great granddaughter

Sayin’ stop this fracking now.

With each repetition I felt an enduring kind of fellowship I never knew existed.

But when the chant stopped I felt a dire anxiety – is this the way it’s going to end? We had spent years knocking on doors, organizing neighborhood meetings, marching in parades, and speaking at town hall debates. Our voices had echoed far and wide. Now all I heard was an ear-ringing silence.

To Frack or Not to Frack?

By Adam Briggle

Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas and a member of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which led the successful Frack Free Denton Campaign. He is author of "A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking" (W.W. Norton), which tells the story of fracking in Denton through both his personal involvement and his philosophical theory of innovation.

MORE FROM Adam Briggle

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aol_on Big Oil Denton Texas Environment Fracking Fracking Bans Oil Industry