Texas House votes to undermine local drilling health and safety rules

Media Contacts

Environment Texas

AUSTIN – Today the Texas House of Representatives voted 122-18 to “expressly preempt” local ordinances on oil and gas drilling and rejected amendments to preserve city authority to protect parks and public health. Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger expressed outrage, saying HB 40 undermines health and safety protections in more than 300 cities.

“This is a dangerous power grab by Big Oil to stomp out the rights of communities to protect themselves from the worst impacts of dirty drilling,”  said Luke Metzger, Director of Environment Texas. “They won’t settle for just overturning the Denton ban but are taking aim at ordinances across the state that limit drilling near homes, schools and parks as well as many other health and safety standards.”

Metzger noted the House approved the bill on the second anniversary of the explosion of the West fertilizer plant which claimed 15 lives. “The tragedy in West clearly showed the need for stronger safety protections on hazardous facilities, but instead the House is moving in the opposite direction. Fracking operations, involving large amounts of flammable, volatile and toxic materials, are inherently dangerous and cities need the authority to protect public health and safety. Today’s vote is an outrage.”
Background on HB40
Cities have adopted drilling ordinances for good reason – drilling can pose real risks to the health, safety and property of Texans. For example, researchers with the Colorado School of Public Health found carcinogenic benzene emissions as far as a mile away from drilling operations – a good reason to have a “setback” to keep drilling away from homes, schools, and other areas where we and our families live and play.

Oil and gas operations can also threaten public safety. According to the news organization Energywire, “The oil and gas industry has more deaths from fires and explosions than any other private industry.” Just last month, an oil rig exploded in West Texas, killing three and injuring one. No wonder the Dallas and Arlington Firefighters Associations are opposing the bills.

Urban drilling can also reduce the value of your home. A study in Flower Mound by real estate economists estimated that drilling operations located adjacent to homes could cut property values by 15 percent.

Oil and gas drilling also puts our water supplies at risk. Since 2005, fracking in Texas has already used about 110 billion gallons of water and produced 260 billion gallons of wastewater. According to the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District in North Texas, open pits of drilling mud waste contaminated four family water wells in Montague County in 2011. And two years ago, water withdrawals by drilling companies caused drinking water wells in the West Texas town of Barnhart to dry up.

City councils around the state have rightly responded to these risks by adopting some limits to help protect our communities. For example, in 2013, the Dallas City Council approved a new drilling ordinance that keeps drilling 1,500 feet from homes and prohibits the injection of fracking waste underground where it could contaminate water supplies or even trigger earthquakes.

But with Denton voters approving a ban on fracking in city limits, the oil and gas industry sensed an opportunity to roll back municipal protections. And they aren’t stopping with the Denton ban. The Texas Oil and Gas Association has called setbacks from homes “extreme” and, in a YouTube video released last month, argued against municipal control, saying “the state is in the best position to ensure public safety.”

In truth, state regulators appear beholden to the oil and gas industry and don’t do nearly enough to protect us from harm. According to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the three elected commissioners of the Texas Railroad Commission (the state’s primary oil and gas regulator) accepted more than $2 million in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 election cycle.

Not surprisingly, oil and gas operators are largely treated with kids’ gloves by the Railroad Commission. According to the Texas Sunset Commission, in fiscal year 2012, the Railroad Commission sought enforcement for just 2 percent of the 55,000 violations its inspectors found.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on the state to protect us from the dangers of drilling. Texans from across the political spectrum believe local governments should fill the gap. For example, a recent poll by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that Texas voters who strongly identify as Republicans support local control of fracking by a margin of 50 percent to 35 percent.

Largely cosmetic changes were made to the House version of the bill, but it still goes very far beyond the stated intent of targeting the Denton ordinance. For example, “reasonable” setbacks are allowed, but reasonable isn’t defined – would Dallas’ setback, one of the strongest in the state, survive a court challenge? Safety standards affecting drilling activities below ground are verboten – would city officials in Corpus Christi still be able to order a shutdown during a hurricane?