Denton Mayor: Drilling Ordinance Is Based More on ‘Aesthetics’ than Health or Safety

Wed, May 27, 2015


During a little-noticed portion of a House Energy Resources Committee hearing in March, Chris Watts, the mayor of Denton, Tex., said that the city’s mandated distances between natural gas wells and buildings or homes – also called setbacks – have “primarily been for aesthetic reasons [and] for notice reasons.”


“I’m not going to sit here and say that we based it primarily on health and safety,” Watts added.


The remarks are at odds with what Watts and other city officials have claimed publicly. Earlier this month, Watts penned an op-ed for the Denton Record-Chronicle in which he defended the city’s ordinance, including its setback, against HB 40, a bill that Governor Greg Abbott recently signed into law.


“We will work tirelessly to develop and enforce ordinances that protect the health and safety of our residents while balancing interests of all parties within this new legislative landscape,” Watts wrote.


Watts added that he and the city council have been working “to preserve and protect the health and safety of our residents and to protect our right to control what happens in Denton.”


But Watts told the House Energy Resources Committee in March that health or public safety “wasn’t necessarily the major factor” behind Denton’s setback.


Setbacks have become a key issue of debate in Texas, with some cities imposing unworkable distance requirements that effectively ban drilling. Activists who oppose oil and gas development have frequently used health arguments to try to justify larger setbacks.


Other city officials have linked the city’s setbacks with safety and public health concerns as well.


In an interview with Qatar-based Al Jazeera, Denton City Councilman Kevin Roden said “drilling for natural gas is incompatible with neighborhoods,” based upon what he claimed were companies who have “chosen to drill on existing sites dangerously close to homes.”


Roden has also called drilling in Denton “awful” due to its “proximity to homes and kids who play in their streets and yards.” The distances to which Roden was referring were authorized by the City of Denton.


In 2011, Roden helped organize the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (DAG) to provide recommendations on the city’s drilling ordinance. The leader of that group, Adam Briggle, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas,blogged in 2012 that a 1,000 foot setback was an “injustice” that contradicted “our top priority of public health.” Briggle recommended a setback of one mile unless a shorter distance could be shown to be protective.


The Dallas Morning News has described DAG as “a handful of Denton residents” who had “concerns about the health effects of an industry operating increasingly close to people’s homes.” The members of DAG later formed the campaign Frack Free Denton, which claims gas drilling “poisons our neighborhoods” based upon the city’s existing setbacks.


The suggestion that Denton’s setbacks are premised on health and safety has even influenced the media’s coverage.


In a story about Denton’s fracking ban, the Texas Tribune wrote that setbacks are among the tools that “cities have long used to police health and safety.”


The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has also written that Denton’s setback was based on health and safety concerns:


“Denton’s drilling ordinances evolved to provide additional protections for the public’s health and safety, and setbacks steadily increased until a revised ordinance, adopted last year, boosted the distance to 1,200 feet.”


Setback Violates State Law?


Mayor Watts’ remarks may also undermine the city’s case in defending the ordinance against the provisions in HB 40, which only allows a city ordinance that “does not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation.”


Last year, Councilmember Roden admitted that Denton’s 1,200 foot setback has “more or less resulted in a de facto ban on new fracking operations in the core of the city.”


In crafting drilling ordinances, Texas cities typically rely on a provision in the state’s local government code that grants them the authority to protect the health and safety of residents. After Governor Abbott signed HB 40, the city spokeswoman for Denton said they “will certainly continue to enforce our current regulations to protect the health and safety of our residents.”


But with the mayor admitting the city’s setback was based on “aesthetics,” not health and safety, it’s possible that at least part of Denton’s drilling ordinance could be deemed inconsistent with state law.