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“The state just overruled a democratic decision”

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Adam Briggle (centre)

“The state just overruled a democratic decision”

22-09-2015

Adam Briggle is a member of “Frack Free Denton”, an alliance of citizens that banned hydraulic oil and gas drilling (“fracking”) in Denton, Texas, in November 2014. The successful protest against fracking was realised by means of direct democracy. It gained worldwide attention by the environmentalist movement. Yet in May 2015, the Texas State Legislature decided to overrule the decision by the people. The city, home to 120,000 people, is now forced to permit fracking once again in its borders. 

Democracy International has interviewed Adam Briggle, who is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of North Texas and author of “A Field Philosopher's Guide to Fracking” at the public event “No to Fracking, yes to direct democracy” that took place in Rothenburg, Northern Germany on 21 September 2015. At this event Adam Briggle spoke via a live conference call.  

Democracy International: In Europe, the image of Texas is that there is a lot of oil and gas, that men wear cowboy hats and that people do not care that much about nature. How could it happen that Denton as a city in Texas banned fracking?

Adam Briggle: During the 1990s Denton was one of the very first places hit by the revolution in energy and gas production. So we the people of Denton were just next to it. We wrote ordinances to regulate fracking as early as 2001, but nobody understood how invasive, toxic, loud and smelly fracking is. So it kept creeping closer and closer to the heart of our city.

In 2009, three gas drills were permitted literally across the street from a hospital and a playground where children play. This caused a great deal of protest, and it was the watershed moment for opposition to fracking in Denton.

At the time, the call was not to ban fracking, but to have better protections for health and safety. What eventually led to the ban was that industry was claiming that they were grandfathered or  ‘vested’ under older laws that were written before we understood the full impacts of fracking. So no matter what we put in place in 2013, they could play by the rules that had been passed much earlier in 2001. This would have led to mass industrialisation of our city unless we did something about it. So we called for the ban, which passed in November 2014.

 

Citizens of Denton protesting against fracking, source: Flickr, Blackland Prairie Rising Tide

How was direct democracy involved when banning fracking in Denton?  

We have the basic liberal representative model of democracy. But some cities like Denton have a charter provision, which allows us to write our own law. So we the citizens could draft exactly what we wanted the ordinance against fracking to say.

We needed 600 signatures to back the ordinance. Actually, this number was that low because we needed 25 per cent of voters who took part in the last municipal elections. And obviously, of a city of Denton that has about 125.000 inhabitants, very few people had participated. In municipal elections only 3000 to 5000 people typically vote. This explains the very low turnout.

What does it mean to be a “charter city”? How did Denton become a “charter city”?

We typically use the term “Home-rule-city”. You are eligible for this when your city has more than 500 residents. That means you can have a charter. It means you have police powers to enact laws that are not expressly overruled by the state. Home rule gives you many powers, so this is the jurisdictional battle we are embroiled in now. Local control is a conservative idea in the United States and in fact conservatives as well as liberals voted for the ban.

The city of Denton banned fracking in November 2014. How did it come that the fracking ban was overruled?

In a nutshell it’s money. If you go down to Austin where the Texas state government is located, it switches from a form of government that is directly tied to citizens’ interests to big money politics. So basically what happened was that the industry was frightened by the Denton ban. A little known story is that the city of College Station passed a very restrictive fracking ordinance right after our ban was passed. So the industry thought that the dominos were going to fall here and we will have all municipalities banning fracking or restricting it.

So I think basically the story is that the industry then exercised their influence over state legislature in Austin. It tried a dozen different bills that were targeting local control that were all driven by the Denton ban. Some of them just said “Cities cannot ban fracking”. Others said “There should be no more home rule at all” or “before you do a citizens’ initiative petition it has to be approved by the Attorney General of the State which needs to make a ruling whether it is constitutional”.

So they were all these different avenues. The one that passed was HB 40. It expressily pre-empts cities from regulating oil and gas activities except for a few things that we can control at local level. But even those things need to be “commercially reasonable.” Overall, the state just overruled a democratic decision.  

What do you intend to do now? What’s your plan to challenge the decision to overrule fracking in Denton?

One plan is to challenge the decision legally. We are also working to improve our local regulations within the framework of HB 40 at least for the time being – including greater emergence preparedness, as we have had gas wells in town explode and blow out.

Another plan is to try to politically change the representatives and hence political leadership. That’s very hard to do but we can do. What is very interesting is that who was state representative won’t run for re-election. And already the two people who have declared their candidacy have approached me for advice about oil and gas extraction policy. They know that the Frack Free Denton Block is a strong voting contingent. So that is interesting. We can use our influence. There are some signs of hope, but it is mostly a grim situation.

More Information:

-    Adam Briggle: “A Field Philosopher's Guide to Fracking”
-    “Frack Free Denton” – Denton Awareness Drilling Group
-    Provisions of direct democracy in the City Charter of Denton

 

More

Citizens of Denton protesting against fracking, source: Flickr, Blackland Prairie Rising Tide
In the US city of Denton the Council has overruled a citizens’ initiative that had led to the banning oil and gas drilling. At a meeting on 4 August...

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