Mounting fracking foes have oil industry concerned

Grass-roots opposition is seen as threat to booming shale business

HOUSTON — A fight over frack­ing is loom­ing in Texas. Another stand-off is shap­ing up in Col­o­rado. Yet drill­ers’ re­ac­tions couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent.

In Texas, drill­ers are do­ing their noisy, in-your-face frack­ing as usual. On a small farm about an hour from the Col­o­rado Rocky Moun­tains, the oil in­dus­try is giv­ing frack­ing a make­over, cut­ting back on rum­bling trucks and tamp­ing down on pol­lu­tion.

Oil com­pa­nies in Col­o­rado are re­spond­ing to a ris­ing tide of re­sent­ment, as lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tiv­ists vie to im­pose mea­sures to ban frack­ing or re­strict drill­ing.

A se­ries of bal­lot ini­tia­tives and other grass-roots op­po­si­tion around the coun­try is seen as threat­en­ing the boom­ing shale in­dus­try, even in oil-friendly Texas, where the U.S. en­ergy re­nais­sance be­gan. If those ini­tia­tives “con­tinue to pro­lif­er­ate, then com­pa­nies lose ac­cess to those re­sources,” said David Spence, pro­fes­sor of law, pol­i­tics and reg­u­la­tion at the Univer­sity of Texas School of Law, who re­searches frack­ing and drill­ing rules.

Ci­ties and coun­ties na­tion­wide have so far passed 430 mea­sures to con­trol or ban frack­ing, the con­tro­ver­sial tech­nique of crack­ing sub­ter­ra­nean rocks to re­lease oil and nat­u­ral gas, ac­cord­ing to a run­ning list kept by Food & Water Watch, a Wash­ing­ton-based en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group.

The in­dus­try’s new­found con­cern and sen­si­tiv­ity in some states rep­resents a shift in tac­tics, as com­pa­nies seek to avoid tak­ing the is­sue to the vot­ing booth, where suc­cess for ac­tiv­ists holds the po­ten­tial of slow­ing the U.S. drill­ing bo­nanza.

At an Anadarko Pe­tro­leum drill­ing site near Dacono, Colo., swarms of trucks and flood lights are hid­den be­hind a wall of hay bales, which soften the roar of die­sel en­gines. Giant pits of murky waste­wa­ter have been elim­i­nated us­ing re­cy­cling and pipe­lines. The num­ber of trucks and tanks needed in some lo­ca­tions has plunged to 50 from 400 in 2011.

Thanks in part to these mea­sures, a last-minute deal state of­fi­cials made with en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tiv­ists helped Col­o­rado avert an anti-frack­ing vote ear­lier this month.

No such com­pro­mise was reached about 800 miles away in Den­ton, Texas, near the birth­place of the U.S. en­ergy boom. Some res­i­dents there say they are ex­as­per­ated with the un­will­ing­ness of pro­duc­ers to lis­ten to their pleas to avoid late-night drill­ing and put wells far away from where chil­dren play. They’re aim­ing to ban all frack­ing in a vote this No­vem­ber.

Com­pa­nies have alien­ated some vot­ers with an at­ti­tude sug­gest­ing “this is just the way that it is in Texas, and if you don’t like it, that’s just too bad,” said Den­ton res­i­dent Cathy McMul­len, who started push­ing for more reg­u­la­tions af­ter wells were drilled by a park near her home. “As far as the in­dus­try goes in Texas, there is no give-and-take. There is just ‘we give, and they take.‘ “

The lat­est two frack­ing bat­tles — one in the heart of Texas oil coun­try, where sup­port for drill­ing is gen­er­ally as­sumed — un­der­score the prog­ress that frack­ing op­po­nents are mak­ing at the lo­cal level af­ter strik­ing out to gain more state or fed­eral con­trol over the in­dus­try.

Den­ton, built around two uni­ver­sities within a 40-minute drive of Dal­las and Fort Worth, has played host to tow­er­ing rigs since the 1960s. The home sta­dium of the Univer­sity of North Texas Mean Green foot­ball team is flanked by both wind tur­bines and nat­u­ral gas wells.

The cur­rent up­roar be­gan in 2009 with a well site staked out across the street from a park, hos­pi­tal com­plex and hill­side neigh­bor­hood. Despite lo­cal op­po­si­tion, Fort Worth-based Range Re­sources Corp. se­lected the site along a busy Den­ton thor­ough­fare out of four lo­ca­tions it was con­sid­er­ing to drill into the gas-rich Bar­nett Shale, the orig­i­nal shale play, City Coun­cil­man Kevin Roden said.

Range Re­sources spokes­man Matt Pitza­rella de­clined to com­ment on the com­pany’s for­mer wells in Den­ton, which are now op­er­ated by Leg­end Nat­u­ral Gas. Leg­end did not re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment.

Early last year, Den­ton changed its reg­u­la­tions, re­quir­ing that new wells be lo­cated at least 1,200 feet from homes. A loop­hole still let pro­duc­ers drill more wells at an ex­ist­ing site, re­gard­less of the set­back rule.

In one Den­ton sub­di­vi­sion of brick homes and two-car drive­ways, pri­vately held EagleRidge Energy didn’t in­form res­i­dents when it be­gan work­ing with heavy equip­ment and oil­field ma­chin­ery as close as 187 feet to back­yards and win­dows in Oc­to­ber 2013, ac­cord­ing to city of Den­ton spokes­woman Lind­sey Baker. Some home­own­ers felt their houses trem­ble dur­ing drill­ing, jar­ring pic­tures from walls, while oth­ers strug­gled to sleep as pow­er­ful lights atop a rig blazed through win­dows at night.

EagleRidge started an­other well three blocks to the south, sand­wich­ing the com­mu­nity be­tween drill­ing sites. Traf­fic bogged down and roads de­te­ri­o­rated, as hun­dreds of trucks brought frack­ing ma­teri­als to the sites, Ms. Baker said.

Oil in­dus­try sup­port­ers ar­gue that the city is partly to blame for let­ting de­vel­op­ers build new res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties in ar­eas pre­vi­ously per­mit­ted for drill­ing. “It’s a con­flict that was ac­tu­ally cre­ated by the ad­min­is­tra­tion in the city of Den­ton,” said Ed Ire­land, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Bar­nett Shale Energy Ed­u­ca­tion Coun­cil, who was ap­pointed to a Den­ton task force formed to ad­dress the con­tro­versy.

Still, res­i­dents’ re­quests for re­lief have drawn lit­tle re­sponse, said Maile Bush, 41, a stay-at-home mom.

“You kind of just put up with it, be­cause you don’t feel like you have a say,” said De­n­ise Diaz, 41, an or­tho­don­tist’s as­sis­tant whose back­yard faces an EagleRidge well. EagleRidge chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Mark Grawe didn’t re­turn calls seek­ing com­ment.

Fed up res­i­dents launched a cam­paign to draft a frack­ing ban in Feb­ru­ary and gath­ered enough votes on a pe­ti­tion to take the ques­tion to vot­ers Nov. 4.

A sim­i­lar vote that would have se­verely cur­tailed drill­ing in Col­o­rado, where oil out­put grew by 30 per­cent last year, was can­celed af­ter Demo­cratic Gov. John Hick­en­looper cre­ated a task force to study the in­dus­try’s im­pact on lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. The deal ear­lier this month was also a nod to com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Noble Energy and Anadarko, that have be­gun tak­ing steps to ap­pease con­cerns.

Last Decem­ber, Anadarko named en­gi­neer Alex Hoh­mann, who pre­vi­ously helped com­plete wells, to lead a new team deal­ing with com­mu­nity re­la­tions. Now, Mr. Hoh­mann, 31, spends his time vis­it­ing po­ten­tial sites and neigh­bor­hoods, some­times go­ing door-to-door, act­ing as a kind of oil-drill­ing dip­lo­mat.

“When your oil­field is in­ter­min­gled with 250,000 peo­ple, it’s in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to take into ac­count the neigh­bor­hood, the church and the school,” Mr. Hoh­mann said on a re­cent tour of sev­eral Anadarko drill­ing sites. “We have to de­mys­tify it, to help peo­ple see it as com­pat­i­ble with their lives. That’s our in­dus­try’s chal­lenge.”?

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