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Is the Denton Fracking Ban an Environmental Justice Victory?

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By Eric Moll

 

On November 4, a 59-to-41 percent landslide made Denton the first city in Texas to ban fracking, an unconventional form of natural gas drilling that has been tied to climate change and earthquakes as well as air and water pollution linked with asthma, cancer, birth defects and other ailments. Fracking was invented near Denton, and with over 270 frack sites within city limits, it’s one of the most heavily fracked towns anywhere.

Photo courtesy of Gena Felker and Britt Utsler/Frack Free Denton

Photo courtesy of Gena Felker and Britt Utsler/Frack Free Denton

Environmental justice is the idea that root causes of racism and poverty share root causes with environmental destruction and must be addressed altogether. Environmental injustice is a fact: ecological destruction and industrial pollution disproportionately affect people of color. It partly explains why the mainstream U.S. environmental movement, which has been mostly white and middle-class, has never truly challenged the economic system’s escalating destruction of the environment.

Part of the problem is the “Not In My Back Yard!” argument, NIMBY for short, which carries an unspoken “Put it in someone else’s backyard!” Because whiter, richer communities have more access to institutional power, only certain people get to say “NIMBY!” The result is a world in which Houston’s bankers and oil executives breathe clean(er) air in River Oaks while their refineries cause extreme rates of chemical sickness in majority people-of-color communities on the East End. Some critics argue that the anti-fracking movement benefits unfairly from this dynamic, getting disproportionate attention by centering the impacts to middle-class white landowners.

So what does it mean that Denton’s fracking fight was called “the ultimate NIMBY case” by Forbes magazine? In terms of Frack Free Denton’s public campaign, Forbes was right. Frack Free Denton repeatedly reminded Dentonites that the city’s fracking ban would not halt drilling in the larger Denton County, that they were only opposed to fracking in densely populated areas near homes, schools and hospitals. They insisted that they had no intention to ban fracking everywhere.

But who are we referring to when we say “Frack Free Denton”? The talking points analyzed by Forbes were determined by the group’s founders, six middle-class white folks who previously organized as the Drilling Advisory Group (DAG). Within Frack Free Denton’s loosely-defined structure, these folks were in charge. Historically, they have been careful to appear centrist and reasonable. Prior to 2014, DAG advocated regulation rather than an outright ban and publicly criticized student activists who talked about banning fracking not just in Denton but everywhere.

Tabling on UNT Campus

It seems that FFD’s organizers were put on the defensive by the fracking industry’s ad campaign. Big spenders like Devon Energy in Oklahoma City and Houston-based EnerVest made this the most expensive election in Denton’s history. Rather than rejecting industry’s entire framing of the debate – around jobs and the tax revenues of the alleged shale boom – FFD responded point-by-point. By insisting that they weren’t anti-economy, they validated industry’s premise and missed a chance to suggest that human health and happiness are at odds with endless-growth economics – or even that fracking jobs are bad for workers too.

It’s worth noting that Frack Free Denton’s actual work of talking to neighbors, distributing literature, and holding concerts and puppet shows and debates and fundraisers was done by a more politically diverse group of dozens of volunteers.

According to Frack Free Denton volunteer Angie Holliday, “[NIMBY] was a tactic we had to use to narrow the discussion down so we weren’t tackling the whole oil and gas industry, just the oil and gas industry within our city limits. It’s definitely something a lot of people feel we had to do to win the ban, but no, it doesn’t reflect the way I feel.”

Of course the voters of Denton only had legal power to ban fracking in their own backyards, so the real environmental justice questions must be posed to the movement built around the ban. The fracking fight sparked unprecedented engagement in Denton. Folks of all ages had their first experience of the real power of grassroots organizing. What comes next in their conversations?

Will they focus on defending the ban in court and go home once the decision is made? Or will they engage the community to discuss the Denton they want to see: whether they want locally-owned businesses or more chain stores, for example?  Vitally, whose voices will be heard in these discussions? What about the African-American community, who make up ten percent of Denton but are conspicuously absent from Frack Free Denton meetings?

This inclusivity (or lack thereof) will play a big role in Denton’s ability to defend the ban. Challenges are coming from at least three sectors of state government: The state Land Commissioner (as of this election, led by yet another Bush) is suing to overturn the ban. The Texas Railroad Commission, which permits oil and gas projects statewide, has refused to recognize Denton’s authority to ban fracking. Even if those obstacles are overcome, state representative Phil King has already promised to bring a bill to override “home rule” authority to ban fracking.

Ironically, these attacks from the state government could be the catalysts which transform Denton’s fracking ban from a NIMBY issue into a statewide debate about small government versus big government and the apparently total entanglement of state regulators and politicians with the oil and gas industry. “Now we’re talking about joining with other communities around Texas to take on things like the Railroad Commission,” says Angie Holliday.

According to Denton resident and Truth-Out reporter Candice Bernd, “The Railroad Commission has upset Texans, on both the right and the left, with its utter failure to protect those who are directly impacted by how the oil and gas industry operates in this state.” TRC is a common foe for people opposing fracking near San Antonio, fracking in Dallas-Fort Worth, new tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL and Seaway, and expanding petrochemical infrastructure around Houston’s port. Working with a broader coalition would mean Frack Free Denton stepping out of its white, middle-class comfort zone.

The first step, according to Angie Holliday, is to fix the problem of Frack Free Denton “not being really representative of the diversity that Denton holds. We’re working to restructure the group, the way that things are run,” she says.

Despite the barriers separating Denton’s fracktivists from environmental justice communities that must contend with not just pollution but also poverty and systemic racism, they share an important grassroots story: they tend to describe their activism as a matter of survival, not as a choice. Tara Hunter, who organized FFD’s door-to-door outreach in the months before the ban, moved to Denton to sing at the UNT music school but ended up with debilitating asthma. “Like me,” she says, “people don’t wake up as activists, you wake up wheezing and coughing, and then you try to figure out what’s in your air – that’s what led a lot of people to this issue, the way they were feeling, the nosebleeds their children were waking up with since the fracking started.”

Tara says that Denton’s anti-fracking movement really started four years ago when parents started having meetings and comparing their children’s symptoms. At least on this vital, basic level, of regular people realizing their collective power to defy big polluters, Denton’s fracking ban is an environmental justice victory. Regardless of age, race or class, everyone inside Denton city limits can now breathe a little easier. And if they can build a more inclusive, more cooperative and therefore more powerful movement, that clean air might even spread beyond their backyard.