National environmental groups joined forces with grassroots activists in Denton on Thursday, seeking to defend in court the first municipal fracking ban adopted in Texas.
The Denton Drilling Awareness Group, a citizens group that fought to put the ban on the November ballot, and Earthworks, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., filed a petition in court asking to be named as defendants and intervenors so they can help provide a “vigorous defense of the legality and enforceability of the ordinance.”
Hours after the ban was overwhelmingly approved by voters on Nov. 4, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, along with the Texas General Land Office, filed lawsuits challenging the ban’s constitutionality and accused it of disrupting the state regulatory framework.
In addition to attorneys from a Richardson law firm that worked on local drilling ordinances, Denton Drilling Awareness Group and Earthworks are being represented by lawyers from Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Cathy McMullen, the leader of the grassroots group that collected nearly 2,000 signatures and petitioned to get the ban on the ballot, said they’ve been talking for some time to Earthworks and others about mounting a legal defense if the ban was approved by voters.
“This is what they do,” McMullen said. “I’m proud to have their help.”
Ultimately, a Denton civil court judge will decide whether the two groups can join the litigation. The other parties involved in the litigation can protest their involvement, but the city of Denton has said it will not block them from joining their legal defense team.
“We are happy to work with them and are open to their request to become an intervenor. We won’t oppose it,” said Lindsey Baker, a spokeswoman for the city.
Attorneys for the oil and gas association could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
McMullen said her group is paying for the legal services of Brown & Hofmeister, the Richardson law firm, but that Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council are working for free.
The ordinance does not ban all drilling, just hydraulic fracturing. Industry representatives, however, say it is effectively a ban on drilling since it is not cost-effective to drill conventional wells.
Bringing in the national environmental groups definitely raises the profile of the Denton ban.
“Denton has become a symbol” since Texas is a state where the oil and gas industry usually rules supreme, said Jim Bradbury, a Fort Worth environmental lawyer. “It adds some glamor to it.”
An oil and gas industry spokesman was quick to point out that this is what it always said the election was about — banning drilling across the country.
“That is where they focused their attention and that was their plan all along. They needed a Texas city to ban drilling, then they can take that model all over the country,” said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry-sponsored group.
Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714 Twitter: @MaxBBaker