How Big Oil & Gas Killed Bans on Fracking in Texas
University of North Texas philosopher Adam Briggle helped spark a movement in Denton, Texas, that led to a historic, although short-lived, ban of hydraulic fracturing in the city last year.
The Denton ban was the first time a Texas city voted to ban fracking and neither the state nor the oil and gas industry took it lightly. Denton, a town of around 128,000 residents and located about 40 miles north of Dallas, sits atop the Barnett Shale, one of the largest natural gas fields in the country.
The day after the vote, the city was sued by both the state of Texas and the oil and gas industry. Several months later, the state passed a bill banning local municipalities from banning fracking, which essentially made Denton’s ban unenforceable. The following month, Denton repealed the ban in order to avoid the lawsuits brought by the state and industry, and, according to Briggle, to prevent a legal precedent from being set for HB 40, the fracking ban ban.
However, the fight is not over for Briggle. He and other activists are working to fight HB 40.
Briggle also has a new book out, A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking, which details the fight over fracking in Denton and how he applies concepts of “field philosophy” to the questions and issues around drilling in neighborhoods.
Recently, Briggle spoke with Planet Experts about the series of events that led to the citywide ban, how he was able to garner community support, and how he applies principles of philosophy toward solving real-world problems.
Planet Experts: Can you provide some background about how you got involved with the movement in Denton to ban fracking?
Briggle: I moved to Denton in 2009. There were about 250 gas wells in the city limits then, but they hadn’t caused much controversy because they were mostly in the more sparsely populated parts. But, they were creeping toward the center of town.
Right when I moved to town there were protests about three gas wells that were being permitted across the street from a hospital and a playground in the neighborhood. I had never heard of fracking until then.
Maybe a year after that, the city council learned from that experience that they needed to revise their ordinances regulating fracking. One of the council members approached me to help form a citizen’s advisory committee [which later became the Denton Drilling Awareness Group that led the movement to ban fracking] to study the issue.
There was also an official task force, but three of the five members were from the industry, and that city council member was concerned that he wasn’t going to get a broad range of views. So that was my entry into this issue formally as a field philosopher.
PE: Can you explain what you mean by field philosophy?
Briggle: Field philosophy takes a non-disciplinary approach to philosophy. The term was coined by Bob Frodeman, who’s also at the University of North Texas. We think everyone is called on to be philosophers in a way that we’re not called on to be chemists because we all have to think about love and death, right and wrong, and good and bad, which are all philosophic judgments. Field philosophers try to help people in real time — who are engaging with real issues and problems — to articulate the philosophic dimensions of those problems.
PE: How did field philosophy inform your work within the context of fracking in Denton?
Briggle: I tried to both identify what were the knowledge gaps that we faced and who had real world experience that could help fill in those gaps. Also, I tried to articulate what ethical principles should guide policy making when it came to fracking. For instance, things like internalizing the external costs of this industrial activity, and also empowering people who are put in harm’s way. Those principles helped us to organize the recommendations that we made.
PE: What led you to the conclusion that banning fracking in Denton was the solution?
Briggle: It’s important to emphasize that we spent the first couple of years not talking about banning at all. We just wanted better regulations.
Denton passed a new ordinance in 2013. The ordinance is about 60 pages long, so there’s a lot of stuff in there, but the big piece was the setback distance — the distance between gas wells and protected uses like homes, parks, and schools. There was a requirement of 1,200 feet. However, the industry continued fracking less than 200 feet from homes.
The industry claimed that they didn’t have to abide by those regulations because they were grandfathered in, or vested, by older regulations, which were written before we knew much about fracking.
There were other situations in which new homes were built close to existing gas wells. That distance can be shorter because the assumption is that people know what they’re moving next to, but that’s a poor assumption because people often don’t know.
It became apparent to us at this point that because of the unique situation of Denton — we already had over 11,000 acres of our land “platted,” which is to say mapped out for fracking development — and we had operators claiming that they were vested under the rules in place at the time they got those plats so didn’t have to abide by the new ordinance.
It looked like we were facing a wholesale industrialization of our city. It appeared at that point, given that the land use regulations that we were able to pass seemed to be inapplicable, that we needed to call for a ban.
PE: Were you surprised by how much community support you got for the ban?
Briggle: When we won the actual vote, I was surprised simply because we had been outspent so badly that I thought our message was going to get swamped out by the opposition. So that was a great surprise.
But, at the end of the day, it shouldn’t have been surprising because it’s a message that resonates across partisan lines. It’s just simply one of neighborhood safety and health.
PE: In your book, you tell the stories of a few people in Denton who have been impacted by fracking. Are there any stories that especially stick with you?
Briggle: There’s a neighborhood called Meadows at Hickory Creek. After the ordinance requiring a 1,200 foot setback was passed, two rigs went up — one on the north and one on the south side of the neighborhood, and both within a couple hundred feet from homes.
When I was out there handing out flyers about who to call if you smell something or hear something, there was a school bus that dropped off kids right next to the south rig. Moms would just grab their kids’ hands and rush them inside because the smoke and the diesel fumes coming off those things was so overpowering. The thought of that scene being replicated across 11,000 acres and potentially dozens of neighborhoods in Denton is what led me to believe that it was the right choice to try to put an end to this. Especially given that we had tried to mitigate it and it didn’t work.
PE: What happened when Texas passed HB 40 banning fracking bans?
Briggle: We were sued by the industry and the state after the Denton vote to ban fracking. But, I think they realized the ban was actually legal under the existing regime. So, the industry and state focused on changing the law.
HB 40 is a new law that not only banned fracking bans, but also eviscerated decades of local control. We, as a city, were in a tough spot because HB 40 clearly made the ban unenforceable.
Then the industry revised their initial lawsuits to reference HB 40 because they wanted to get a legal precedent set for HB 40 by the Denton case and those pending lawsuits. Our options were to enforce the ban or not. There was no way to enforce the ban. The question was, could we leave it on the books, even just symbolically, and get out of those lawsuits? This was a very divisive issue and I understood different angles on it.
Do we risk giving HB 40 a legal precedent when the only upside to that is leaving a dead ordinance on our books anyway? Or do we repeal the ordinance, which we can’t apply anyways, to get out of the lawsuit so we don’t risk having this precedent set? That’s what it came down to. My perspective on it was that it didn’t make sense to press those lawsuits any further and that the only way to get out of those lawsuits was to repeal the ban. Once the ban was repealed, there would be no further case. The city council voted to repeal back in June.
PE: What are your next steps?
Briggle: We’re in a tough spot right now. However, two good things have come out of HB 40. One is the wake up call that it’s given to a lot of communities that were thinking it wouldn’t apply to them and now they see it will. And, second, it’s really catalyzed a lot more intensive and smart social networking and community building.
We’re building a grassroots network of communities across the state. From there, we’ll try to get city councils to pass resolutions that call for the restoration of local control. Then, we’ll work on political change in Austin.
It’s going to be a long game now and we’ll have to have perseverance.
PE: In your book, you talk about how there is so much we don’t know about the health impacts of fracking. Is that still the case?
Briggle: The Physicians for Social Responsibility just released an updated compendium of their studies on the adverse effects of fracking. One thing they note is that over half the studies they site were published after January 2014. We are starting to see the science catching up to the industry, but there’s still enormous amounts of uncertainties.
One thing I try to wrestle with in the book is that we can never have certainty about the full implications of the technology before we actually roll it into complex, natural social systems. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen. So you do rely on learning about it as you go. But it’s been frustrating that there are so many barriers to learning about fracking. From trade secret chemicals, to the use of nondisclosure agreements, to just the simple lack of monitoring capacity, I just don’t think we’re doing a good job of monitoring and learning from this real world experiment.
PE: The last section of your book is called Responsible Drilling. Does that exist, and if so, what does it look like?
Briggle: That was always the industry’s mantra, but they never defined it. I have two different answers. One reduces the question to a land use question and answers it based on what responsible drilling would look like on a municipal level. In that case, responsible drilling would be whatever the people who are exposed to potential harms of it decide it looks like. Get the people in the neighborhood together and ask them if they want it and, if so, under what conditions. Then I think you’d be able to identify responsible drilling.
But, thinking globally, I think responsible drilling may be a contradiction in terms. I don’t think we live in a time where we can afford to be extracting even more fossil fuels and combusting them.