Another page has turned for those of us in Denton who last November achieved a David over Goliath victory as voters turned out in large numbers for a midterm election to support a fracking ban here. This achievement gained world-wide recognition. But living in Texas where oil has been king for a century, the culture in power politics was not going to let this expression of democracy make a ripple in the vast empire of black gold where millionaires and billionaires have been made.
With deep pockets the oil and gas industry influenced our state legislators and from this partnership came HB40 which not only killed the fracking ban in Denton but was an in-your-face response to all other cities and towns who might have any notions of creating local policy that the powers that be may not be receptive to.
So what we’re left with is a city ordinance that has to meet gas and oil drillers rendering of HB40’s “commercially reasonable” concept. As vague a concept to wrap your mind around as the so-called “invisible hand” of the free markets that supposedly keeps predatory capitalism in check.
So last Tuesday night the Denton city council came together again for what turned out to be one last consideration of public views before deciding what limits to impose on oil and gas drillers. Much had already been said from an earlier meeting on June 16th. Amongst those of us who favored stricter standards were some of the property owners and industry reps who fought the fracking ban last year looking to make our ordinance as weak as possible.
Listening to some of the property owners like Bobby Jones, Ed Sorrels and a few others give personal testimonials about how they and their families haven’t suffered any negative consequences from wells drilled on their land was about as hollow as it was to hear others repeat the gas and oil industry’s worn out talking points about the benefits we gain from cheap natural gas. All of it brought to mind for me the lyrics from the Simon and Garfunkel song, “The Boxer” how “a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”
Personal testimonials can be convincing but they don’t necessarily reflect the entire population affected by fracking natural gas and oil in shale rock. There are of course those testimonials from other locals like Sharon Wilson, Malle Bush and Rebecca LeBlanc whose personal experiences from wells drilled on their property in close proximity to their homes resulted in serious health problems with their lives and the lives of family members, not to mention the devaluation of their property.
Rally held outside Denton City Hall in late May to support upholding the fracking ban HB40 would eventually kill
As for the “benevolentness” and economic benefit claims of fracking, the attempts to hide the ugly side of this issue is what has given the gas and oil industry the edge it seems in this fight to claim our rights as citizens who oppose their intrusion into our neighborhoods and near our parks and schools.
This reality struck me as a I read a recent article by Lynn Parramore talking about “America’s parasitical oligarchs” who pointed out – much like the oil and gas industry – that “one of their favorite tactics is to masquerade as defenders of the common folk while neatly arranging things behind the scenes so that they can continue to plunder unimpeded.”
It is this ability to appeal to people’s self-interests that can be both a stumbling block and a tool for us as we try to regain the upper hand and persuade the public to stay with us as we battle to repeal HB40. People indeed see only what they want to see most times, especially if they are inadequately informed.
So it is our job to help people see more clearly. Though there are advantages for some individuals as they profit from their mineral rights and for the rest of us who are seeing cheaper fuel costs (even though we are now beginning to see them climb back up to their former high rates), the down side to all of this can and does offset these benefits. Even though they are less discerning on a daily time continuum, this product and the processing of it increases our health care costs as insurers adjust their rates to higher levels of lung disease and neural damages associated with living in close proximity to drilling sites.
But we are greater than our mere self-interests. Albert Einstein brings this concept home in his 1931 essay “The World as I See It”:
“How strange is the lot of us mortals. Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people – first of all those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.” (emphasis mine)
It was this sympathy “for the many, unknown to us” that I tried to evoke from city council member as I made my plea to them to ensure the greatest possible distances we can for setbacks. To do this I reminded them of the tragedy we all witnessed back in April, 2013 when the little town of West, Texas, about 150 miles south of Denton, was shattered with a 2.1-magnitude explosion from a fertilizer plant that had far too much ammonium nitrate improperly stored in their poorly secured building.
Before and after photos demonstrating the damage from the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company
This mismanaged and poorly regulated facility wreaked havoc when the explosion of their volatile product killed 15 people, many of them emergency first responders, while injuring 160 others and damaging or destroying 150 buildings. Despite numerous warnings and fines from local, state and federal agencies the owners failed to heed these warnings and now 15 families have suffered the worst possible outcome of this do-nothing attitude.
I urged the city council members to look beyond the economic promises of this land yet to be developed saying they must be prepared to also see the consequences of their actions that allows homes and businesses in close proximity to a deadly, toxic industry not unlike that West, Texas fertilizer plant.
Thinking such a horrific accident will never occur, or worse, hoping it won’t, will do little to assuage our consciences when a deadly explosion takes out nearby homes and the people who reside therein. Families with children and even babies who put their trust in decisions of people who put more emphasis on economic development than sensible health and safety standards that would protect human life.
Sadly however after all of the public comments including those mentioned above by the industry and their supporters, the council, save one, (my district 2 representative) voted for the lesser setbacks that allowed oil and gas well heads as close as 500 ft. near new homes and as little as 250 ft. near industrial sites. Parents who have children work at these industrial sites. 250 ft. is just slightly more than the width of the City Hall building where we met in to discuss this critical issue.
I awoke the morning after the city council had reached their conclusion, despondent that special moneyed interests had once again kicked democracy in the ass.
We too often continue to be a nation of corporate special interests putting profits and economic advantages over the health and safety of many of our citizens. Citizens who are often the most vulnerable and the least powerful to effect policies that help secure a consistent standard of life to promote their well-being in vital areas of life.
Jefferson declared that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We assumed this meant equally across the board even though at the time black slaves and all women were not allowed to participate in government.
It is perhaps this archaic remnant of our past that seems to represent what many refer to today when they vow to take their government back. Back from the people and into the hands of the aristocratic wealth of white property owners. I sincerely hope not.
We have progressed to the 21st century and “we the people” must not let a dream die at the hands of those who still maintain an 18th century view of government.
8/4/15 City Council Meeting video – public comments began at 1:33:40 http://denton-tx.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=1150