Denton, Texas is a suburb of Dallas that has seen its share of drilling and fracking over the years. Some 272 active oil and gas wells are within the city limits, and another 212 wells immediately surround the town. But on Election Day, city residents handed the oil industry a huge defeat: A new ballot initiative passed decisively, prohibiting the practice of fracking within the corporate limits of Denton.
In Texas, drilling isn't just tolerated, it's a status symbol. So for a Texas community to buck prevailing state values with a resounding "no" to fracking operations is an upset of startling proportions. The oil industry outspent opponents of fracking almost 10 to one during the campaign, shelling out almost $700,000 — about $6 for every resident. But the anti-fracking ballot initiative passed by a landslide, garnering nearly 60 percent of the vote.
Of the many towns that find themselves in the midst of the oil patch, this isn't the first to restrict oil and gas operations within city limits. Casper, Wyo. is the hub of the oil industry in a state that is among the most heavily drilled and fracked in the nation. Yet its long-established city ordinances read, "It is unlawful for any person to drill, mine or produce, or cause to be drilled, mined or produced, any oil, gas, coal or other mineral within the city." The ordinance goes on to state, "Any person so acting is guilty of constructing, establishing or maintaining a nuisance against the public health, safety and welfare of the city."
About 50 miles east of Casper, Kristi Mogen lives on a rural ranch near Douglas, Wyo. Her story illustrates why fracking has become such a hot-button issue. "We had this beautiful view of the mountains, the city lights, and the sunsets were spectacular, and the native grasses didn't have any chemicals on them," Mogen recalls wistfully. "We could raise our all-natural, grass-fed cattle and do organic gardening."
In March 2012, that reality changed when the first well went in near their homestead. A month later, the second well went in, and then there was the afternoon of the big blowout. At first, local residents were told, "it's all natural gas, it's okay." But by 9 o'clock the evacuation began. The Mogens were left behind. "I got up at 5:30 the next morning and there was a cloud [of pollutants] over the house so thick I couldn't even see the barn," Mogen recounts. By the time the family got packed and reached the mailboxes a mile and a half away, they all had headaches and bloody noses. Mogen's daughter had nosebleeds for 29 days straight.
Mogen's husband has worked in the oil industry in Montana, and had thought that drilling was safe. "We didn't understand how damaging it was," says Mogen. "By June, my husband was very sick." In September, an air quality report was leaked into the family's hands, indicating that drilling muds had vaporized during the blowout, spewing benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene into the air. These are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and this knowledge finally enabled the family to seek help from a medical specialist in Colorado. Their cattle were even less fortunate: One calf was born with a tumor, and several of their prized herd, raised to the high standards of organic ranching, were born sterile.
The blowout was only the beginning. The flaring of waste products started in May, with four flares within a mile and a half of the Mogen house. "The smell was horrendous," says Mogen. "Our gardens died." Residents asked the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to regulate the flaring, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
In June, Chesapeake Energy started releasing fly ash into the air, followed by barite releases and volatile organic compounds wafting off the pits at the drilling sites. "In October 2013, we had a really bad frack-sand release [into the air]," recounts Mogen. "It's a major violation." In addition, four different earthquakes rattled the Mogen household during oil and gas operations.
After 10 years at the homestead near Douglas, the Mogens are leaving. A key factor: Local and state officials did nothing to protect local residents from the health and safety hazards of living in close proximity to drilling operations. Mogen recounts a litany of state regulatory agencies, federal officials, even the governor. "None of them did anything to protect the quality of life, our way of life, our health, or the environment," says Mogen as she packs her family's belongings. "We have been driven from our home."
Back in Denton, Texas, the victorious town residents are bracing for a lawsuit that the oil industry intends to file to contest the residents' anti-fracking vote. But as the potential for environmental calamity grows ever more obvious throughout the oil patch, stronger regulations are only a matter of time.
Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.