When a town finds itself perched above a multi-million dollar oil reserve, its citizens can find themselves caught in a political battle between their state and their willingness to allow drilling.
Just this month, Texas Governor Greg Abbott shot down a fracking ban that had been passed by voters in the town of Denton back in November. The newly signed law now blocks any local measures that would regulate or restrict hydraulic fracking statewide.
Through the policy, the Republican governor undercut the right of local voters to decide what the oil and gas companies can do in their backyards, saying in a statement that the new law “preempts regulation of oil and gas activity at the city level and resides that duty with the state….[and] 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.”
But is it appropriate for the state government to determine what’s in the best interests of its small towns and counties?
Nearly 500 counties nationwide have now passed local fracking bans of their own. But this week’s action in Texas questions whether or not voters can have the ultimate say in their community’s stance on fracking. New York State and Vermont already have statewide bans in place while lawmakers, advocacy groups and citizens in both California and Colorado are pushing to see statewide bans fall into voters’ hands on future ballots.
In Colorado, an often-divided purple state, the northern city of Longmont has become something of a microcosm for the issue.
Kaye Fissinger, President of Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont and campaign manager for the Longmont fracking ban, sees this week’s actions in Texas as a response to what happened right in her backyard.
“Since Longmont passed its ban and was followed by four other communities, the oil and gas industry began to figure out hey, this is serious,” Fissinger tells The Fuse. “We’re not only fighting the industry, we’re fighting the state.”
In an effort to cement Longmont’s local right to stop fracking, Fissinger’s group amended the city’s charter back in 2012 so that extraction operations would be forever banned from within the city limits. Much like Denton, Longmont faced swift legal action that led to a judge tossing out the fracking ban last summer. For now, a stay is halting active fracking operations as the city of Longmont appeals its case. Now, it’s awaiting oral argument in the appellate court.
As Fissinger sees it, the issue is “destined” to head to the state supreme court eventually.
“It’s time for the high court to look at the full picture,” Fissinger says. “The people who are involved in this feel that they are guinea pigs who never gave their permission.”
With a population of just under 90,000, Longmont and its citizens find themselves sitting on an estimated half-billion dollars’ worth of oil. Thanks to pro-bono legal representation, the city has been able to continue its appeals process. They haven’t found an ally in Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), who sees the industry as a significant economic driver.
“If you ban fracking, and therefore eliminate, I don’t know, 80 or 90 percent of the oil and gas activity, not only do you threaten a $20 billion a year industry, not only do you threaten 100,000 jobs, but you threaten that a court will come back and hold the state of Colorado liable for the financial penalties of taking [away mineral rights from private owners],” Hickenlooper told Colorado Public Radio earlier this year.
When it comes to who decides where oil and gas companies can drill, Hickenlooper has been unwavering in his opinion that it’s not up to the local leadership.
“The environmental community want[s] to give the local elected leadership the right to say ‘no fracking’ if there’s people around. That’s taking something away from that mineral right owner [that he or she’s] had for all these years,” Hickenlooper said earlier this year.
A state Oil and Gas Task Force appointed by Hickenlooper recently issued several recommendations that the governor agreed “should be enacted.” The major points revolved around increasing communication between city leaders and the oil and gas companies, as well as adding health surveys.
But there have been many critics of the recommendations—including task force co-chair Gwen Lachelt.
“I feel like we let the people of Colorado down,” she said when the recommendations were released back in February, explaining that the task force failed to give local governments more control over where drilling is allowed to happen.
“That’s part of what’s at stake here: who governs?” says Fissinger. “Is it corporations? Or the people? Do they have a right to say something?”
Not only does Fissinger see an infringement on the rights of towns to protect their health and property, but also, she sees a problem that extends far beyond the borders of Longmont and even Colorado.
“Everything that’s going on is only delaying the transition to alternative energy that we have to make,” she says, underscoring the need for new investment in energy innovation rather than in legal battles.