Lawmakers in Texas and energy-producing states across the nation are rushing to stop local communities from imposing limits on oil and gas drilling despite growing public concern about the health and environmental toll of such activities in urban areas.
The slump in oil prices that has led to job losses in the oil patch has only added to the urgency of squelching local drilling bans and other restrictions the industry views as onerous. The number of jobs nationwide in the sector that includes energy production has fallen 3.5 percent since December, and Texas alone lost about 25,000 jobs in March, according to federal data.
A half-dozen states – Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Mexico – have imposed or grappled with the issue of putting limits on local municipalities’ ability to regulate drilling or hydraulic fracturing, a practice of blasting huge volumes of water and chemicals underground to release tight deposits of oil and gas. And two of the biggest energy producers in the nation, Texas and Oklahoma, are poised to prohibit cities and towns from enacting any ordinances considered unreasonable to energy exploration, including limits on fracking, water disposal, well maintenance and other activities.
The backlash against local bans represents the third phase of the U.S. shale boom. In the last decade, fracking spawned a massive expansion in drilling that pushed the United States to the number one oil and gas producer in the world. Cities responded to environmental and health concerns by passing restrictions. Now, state lawmakers are stepping in to shut down the groundswell of local activism in order to keep the energy expansion rolling.
“It had gotten to the point where various municipalities have been writing extremely detailed and onerous ordinances, making it difficult for companies to operate,” said Ed Ireland, head of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, which advocates for developing the rich deposit in Texas.
About 60 municipalities in Texas – the nation’s biggest oil and gas producing state – have some form of ordinance on the books limiting drilling or fracking, according to the Texas Municipal League. Dallas does not permit drilling closer than 1,500 feet from homes, schools or churches. Suburban Southlake bans drilling during the dry summer months. Mansfield doesn’t allow drilling on Sundays or holidays.
In Mansfield, a wealthy suburb about 30 miles southeast of Dallas, Tamara Bounds said the loud whir of fracking a few hundred feet from her backyard kept her awake at night for nine months.
“I couldn’t sleep. I had to barricade my windows with mattresses,” said Bounds, who is running for the city council on a platform that includes tighter control of oil and gas activities.
Hundreds of natural-gas wells dot the hilly landscape, and pipelines snake behind housing cul-de-sacs. A 16-well pad site and compressor station hums behind the city’s performing-arts center. Mayor David Cook is an example of the fine line some public officials try to walk in Texas between protecting their communities and supporting the oil-and-gas industry. He backs the natural-gas drilling in the area but opposes efforts by the state Legislature to prohibit communities from setting some rules.
“Instead of a balancing act, it’s a Texas two-step. Health and safety come first. After that, you do everything you can do to develop the economy of the state of Texas,” Cook said.
Drilling is forging ahead in energy-rich states despite growing evidence that the practices are effecting the environment. In Oklahoma, the state’s geological survey conceded last month it was “very likely” that recent seismic activity was caused by the injection of wastewater from drilling into disposal wells.
Earthquake activity in 2013 was 70 times greater than it was before 2008, Oklahoma geologists reported.
Even so, the Oklahoma House approved a wide-reaching bill last month that prohibits cities and towns from banning oil and natural-gas drilling, or implementing restrictions that are not “reasonable.”
When a single Texas community, the university town of Denton near Dallas, voted last fall to impose a ban on fracking within its boundaries, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature sprang into action to ensure others wouldn’t follow suit.
There are no fewer than 11 Texas bills designed to ban future local limits on energy production.
The state’s energy industry lobbied heavily to ensure passage of the Texas legislation, which allows communities to have a say in things above the surface of the ground such as noise, lighting and traffic. But the bill says any local limits have to be “commercially reasonable,” a test that critics contend will allow drillers to do pretty much what they want. The bill sailed through the Texas Legislature and is now headed to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it into law.
In Mansfield, the looming law is throwing into doubt an ordinance passed in March that includes notifying potential home buyers if a gas well has been permitted within 300 feet of their property.
“It could be months of work down the tube,” said Cook, the mayor.
Texas politics have for decades been awash in oil money. Drilling operations contributed more than $12 billion to state coffers in 2013, accounting for about 4.5 percent of the budget. Oil- and gas-industry donors contributed about $400 million to 2014 campaigns.
“Our government in Texas is owned by the oil-and-gas industry,” said Sharon Wilson, a Gulf regional organizer for the environmental group Earthworks. The 11 bills in the Legislature “are meant to show Texans who’s in charge,” she said.