Texas vote on oil and gas rules may presage more industry influence

By Mike Lee | 04/20/2015 08:11 AM EDT

The Texas oil industry flexed its muscle Friday in a legislative vote that could limit city regulation of drilling operations.

The Texas oil industry flexed its muscle Friday in a legislative vote that could limit city regulation of drilling operations.

It could be a sign of things to come as state lawmakers consider a raft of bills on environmental issues. Texas’ Republican leaders won wider majorities in both the House and Senate this year and have promised to push for a conservative agenda (EnergyWire, Jan. 9).

H.B. 40, which passed the lower chamber 122-18 on Friday, would prevent cities from regulating oil and gas drilling or any associated activities, except for "commercially reasonable" rules on surface impacts such as noise, dust, lights and truck traffic.


"Clearly, the vote counts show just how much power the oil and gas industry has," said Luke Metzger, director of the nonprofit group Environment Texas.

Still to come at the Capitol in Austin are bills that would make it harder for residents to request a public hearing to contest permits for industrial plants, rolling back the state’s renewable energy standard and limiting local governments’ ability to collect civil damages in pollution cases. Even modest reforms — such as renaming the Texas Railroad Commission to reflect its actual work as the state’s oil and gas regulator — have proved controversial.

The state Senate hasn’t taken a final vote on its version of the local control bill. In the past, controversial bills often died in the upper chamber because of rules allowing the Democratic minority to block legislation.

The rules were weakened by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative firebrand who said they didn’t reflect the state’s conservative voters (EnergyWire , Feb. 27, 2014).

H.B. 40 was intended as a response to the city of Denton’s ban on hydraulic fracturing that voters adopted in a Nov. 4 referendum. Critics, including representatives from the state’s biggest urban areas, said it goes even further, rolling back important safeguards that their cities have adopted, including local bans on wastewater disposal, and bringing drilling closer to parks, schools and churches.

The Texas Oil and Gas Association praised the bill, saying it would prevent cities from adopting a patchwork of local regulations that could slow down the state’s drilling boom and threaten its energy-reliant economy.

Legislators from urban areas asked for amendments allowing cities more authority to regulate drilling near parks and to stipulate that they had power to protect public health. They all died by wide margins.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, a Democrat who is running for mayor of Houston, argued that it was a local ordinance that prevented oil drilling in Houston’s 1,500-acre Memorial Park in the 1970s.

"If H.B. 40 is giving a green light to drill in Memorial Park, for example, H.B. 40 creates major problem for me," he said.

Rep. Drew Darby, the Republican chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said most local ordinances would still be allowed to continue, since the bill has a "safe harbor" clause intended to protect existing local regulations.

"It was intended to allow for — in fact encourages — operators and cities sitting down together and planning and coordinating the orderly development of minerals," he said.

It’s not a symbolic issue in Texas, the largest oil-and-gas-producing state. The onset of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing allowed oil and gas development to push into cities. Tarrant County, which encompasses the western half of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, has a population of 1.9 million and is also the biggest gas-producing county in the state, thanks to thousands of wells dotted throughout suburban neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, an accident at a well pad in Arlington, a suburb of Dallas, sent thousands of barrels of fracking fluid into a city storm drain and forced the evacuation of about 50 homes (EnergyWire, April 14).

Darby initially brushed off discussion of the Arlington accident as an example of cooperation between the oil industry and the city. However, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Wednesday that the city may impose a fine on the company that owns the well, because crews at the site waited two hours before calling the fire department.

"I want to put it on the record the operator was in violation of the [local] code," Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat whose district includes Arlington, said during the debate.