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Texas Senate Chambers. Image via Flickr.

Denton fracking bill sails through Texas Senate

With little discussion, the Texas Senate approved a bill Monday limiting municipal control over oil and gas drilling and prohibiting any city from banning fracking.

The Senate voted 24-7 for House Bill 40 — also known as the Denton fracking bill. It reasserts state control over drilling while spelling out some limited powers that cities have in regulating surface operations. The bill will now go to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature.

The push for the bill came after Denton residents approved a ban on hydraulic fracturing in November.

Sen. Troy Fraser, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee, avoided attempts to amend the bill in committee and on the Senate floor. The bill underwent a careful and sometimes contentious rewrite in the House before being adopted 122-18.

Lawmakers have said that the bill is necessary to clarify state and local regulations and prevent a statewide patchwork of unreasonable ordinances that would threaten oil and gas production.

The fight over who controls urban drilling began after Denton residents approved a ban, not on all drilling but simply on hydraulic fracturing. A grassroots group felt that the city and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry, were not doing enough to protect them.

In related news, Denton City Council drills into its fracking ban ordinance.

That vote followed difficulties in other cities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield, related to urban drilling.

HB40 emerged as the major drilling bill moving through the Legislature. It was written by Rep. Drew Darby, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, as an attempt to give the industry regulatory certainty amid the regulations adopted by cities.

At the top, HB40 makes it clear that state agencies such as the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are in charge, saying the law would “expressly preempt the regulation of oil and gas operations by municipalities and other political subdivisions.”

The bill includes a four-part test for allowing cities to regulate operations above the ground, such as fire and emergency response, noise and setbacks. But the bill says those controls must be “economically reasonable” and can’t hinder or “effectively prohibit” the work of a “prudent operator.”

To provide some comfort to cities with longstanding ordinances, such as Fort Worth, the bill contains a “safe harbor” provision that says any ordinance or other measure in effect for five years that has allowed drilling to take place should be considered commercially reasonable.

City officials still complained that the measure eroded municipal powers and created ambiguity. For example, rules banning saltwater injection wells might not survive, they say. Blowout prevention measures may be gone, they add, and requirements for the capturing of well site emissions could be compromised.

But the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas Municipal League, which had spoken out strongly against the bill, agreed “to support or be neutral” on this version and not provide amendments unless both parties agree.

This article was written by Max Baker from Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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