Amid last month’s Republican sweep of the 2014 midterm elections, there were some notable progressive victories. Marijuana decriminalization, gun control laws and minimum wage increases all passed on various states’ ballots. But perhaps the most inspiring initiative voters put into law was a ban on fracking in Denton, Texas. Unfortunately, Texas politicians, bureaucrats and business interests are pledging to fight, repeal and/or ignore it.
Texas Railroad Commission chairwoman Christi Craddick, who is responsible for oil and gas regulation – which, in Texas, apparently means doing as little regulating as possible – said, “It’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s … We’re going to continue permitting up there because that’s my job.” Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, wrote a letter saying, “While we applaud the city’s efforts to promote the welfare of its citizens, we must make sure it is done in a manner consistent with existing state laws … the Legislature has made regulation of underground mineral estates and the methods for producing them a matter of State agency regulation.”
Residents of Denton made it clear, by a stern 59-41 percent vote, that they do not want fracking in their town. Texas Republicans are telling them they have no right to such a declaration because the state – that perennial foe of every right-wing principle – is the only entity with a say-so in the matter.
Meanwhile, Texas is in perpetual conflict with the federal government over voting laws, healthcare and, particularly, environmental regulations. In 2013, former Texas attorney general and current Gov.-elect Greg Abbott boasted that he sued the Obama administration 25 times for perceived overreaches. Now, that cadre of state-hating Republicans is using Big Government to step on the little people of Denton. The hypocrisy might make you fall over backward, but the right-wing position all along has never been about “individual freedom” – not unless that individual is trying to make a buck, anyway. Far from eroding the state, the Republican agenda is to build a very strong state that can be used to intervene in public policy on behalf of corporate interests.
With 272 active wells in the city and another 212 just outside the city limits, Denton residents ought to know as much as anyone about fracking. Yet another leading member of the Texas Railroad Commission, David Porter – nominally a public servant and not a P.R. representative for the oil and gas industry – suggests, “Denton voters fell prey to scare tactics and mischaracterizations of the truth in passing the hydraulic fracturing ban.” Such a dismissive attitude of a resounding victory at the ballot box is bad enough, but it’s downright silly in light of the overwhelming pro-fracking propaganda Denton residents were subjected to. The main opponents of the ban, energy giants Chevron, Chesapeake Energy and XTO Energy (a subsidiary of Exxon), outspent the pro-ban group, Frack Free Denton, by almost 10-to-1 and still lost. Far from being the prey of scare tactics, Denton residents have plenty of good reasons to want fracking out of their town.
Fracking – the process of shooting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the earth to jostle natural gas loose from shale formations – is well known to cause a myriad of environmental problems, most notably air and water pollution. Denton’s air is tied with Houston’s as the most polluted in Texas, making it among the most polluted in the nation and well exceeding the limits set forth by the Clean Air Act. The health effects of exposure to the bevy of chemicals used in, and released into the environment as a result of, fracking are only just beginning to be documented. Fracking has even been implicated in a rise in earthquakes where heavy fracking takes place. Property values around fracking sites are known to plummet. And just to tie all those concerns together, under current regulatory standards, fracking is allowed a mere 1,200 feet away from residential areas and, in many cases, goes on even closer.
Commissioner Craddick defended frackers, saying, “Most of them are active in their communities where they’re doing business and trying to give some dollars back.” It’s a weak enough statement on its own, but even that minimal claim is dubious. Craddick herself asserts (in fact, it’s a key component of her argument) that Denton residents don’t own the minerals underneath their homes and town, so we know they aren’t getting any money directly from their extraction. Adam Briggle, a University of North Texas assistant professor specializing in bioethics and a leader in Frack Free Denton, argues that fracking’s contribution to Denton’s local economy is minimal, if not actually detrimental: “Royalties paid to the City of Denton account for less than 1 percent of the city budget. Taxes from wells amount to only about 0.5 percent of all city property tax revenues. The biggest beneficiaries from fracking in Denton are out-of-town companies and absentee mineral owners.”
When conservatives rail against government, what they’re really opposed to is democracy, and their swiftness to use state power against democratic action in Denton exemplifies this. They hold up the free market, a nebulous, pseudo-religious construct, as the only legitimate arbiter of right and wrong. But the most important part of living in a free market is the freedom of people to shape that market. In theory, this is done through responsible consumer choices, but the market doesn’t always provide alternatives. Our transportation and energy infrastructure makes it almost impossible for millions of Americans not to patronize certain industries, particularly the oil industry. If people can't use their spending power to tell the market they want something else, they ought to be able to send that message with their vote.
Market action isn’t sufficient to enact the widespread infrastructural changes that are morally incumbent as environmental degradation and climate change worsen. Elected representatives aren’t going to do it; most of them are in bed with the fossil fuel industry. And the fossil fuel industry isn’t going to do it when it can rely on state Republicans – in direct violation of the very free market principles they’re so fond of espousing – to keep it heavily subsidized and come to its aid with legislative intervention whenever it's threatened. With the system so corrupt and gridlocked, direct democracy of the kind used in Denton is the only way to make a change.
The fracking ban doesn’t come close to addressing all the planet’s environmental needs, but more issues like it coming under the scrutiny of public referendum will get us where we need to go a lot faster than the free market or state officials ever could. Residents in Denton came together to make a decision in their community’s best interest and exercised their right to self-governance. They scored an important, inspiring victory for the environment and for their town. We can only hope that the Big Government Republicans of Texas and the industry titans they serve don’t take it away from them.