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.”?