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Senate Committee Advances "Denton Fracking Bill"

A Senate committee has advanced legislation to limit local control over oil and gas activities across Texas. The proposal is among nearly a dozen filed in response to a North Texas town's vote to ban hydraulic fracturing.

Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Marble Falls, in 2013.

A Senate committee gave unanimous approval Tuesday to a bill that would limit local control over oil and gas activities across Texas — a measure being referred to as the "Denton fracking bill." 

The proposal is among nearly a dozen filed in the aftermath of the North Texas town's vote in November to ban hydraulic fracturing within city limits, and it's among those most likely to pass.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1165, now heads to the full Senate, where advocates for municipalities will push for changes to address their biggest concern – that the proposal would jeopardize long-held city police powers.

“I’m inviting people to continue to bring me amendments or language that could be added to the bill,” said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development. “We’re trying to keep the process moving.”

Tuesday was the second consecutive day that energy industry representatives, environmentalists and local officials spilled out of hearing rooms. They were following debate on proposals to limit municipalities' regulatory domain over "surface activity that is incident to oil and gas operations” when rules are "commercially reasonable" and don’t conflict with other state requirements.

Early Tuesday morning — following a Monday hearing that lasted late into the night — House Bill 40, Rep. Drew Darby’s companion to Fraser’s bill, was left pending in a House committee. The Senate hearing later Tuesday lasted more than four hours and ended with an 8-0 vote to advance Fraser's bill. 

A litany of petroleum groups support the legislation.

“The committee took a necessary step forward to address one of the most important issues the Legislature needs to resolve this session,” Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the state’s former agriculture commissioner, said in a statement. “Today’s testimony and unanimous vote confirm that Chairman Fraser has authored a fair bill that balances local control and property rights.”

Fraser’s move to vote on the proposal – rather than wait for proposed tweaks from concerned city officials – caught some bill-watchers off-guard.

“We were surprised, but not discouraged,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

Municipalities say they are willing to work with state lawmakers to clarify how far their police powers stretch – rather than attempt an all-out blitz on legislation that has sparked outcries in city halls.

“I believe that we have the confines – or the beginnings – of a solution,” said Snapper Carr, an attorney with the Texas Coalition of Cities for Utility Issues. “We’re trying to fix it.”

Fraser said his bill seeks to clarify where local control ends and state law begins, and to “ensure consistent statewide regulation of the oil and gas industry.”

But critics worry that the bills as written would only add to the confusion, potentially taking away tools cities have long used to police health and safety. That’s partly because of its broad definition of what types of oil and gas operations would be “subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the state.”

Beyond exploration, production, hydraulic fracturing and a slew of other underground activities, the bill also considers petroleum processing and transportation as oil and gas operations subject to such state jurisdiction. 

“It covers everything,” Carr said. “They’ve given nothing for us to regulate.”

City attorneys in Mansfield, Fort Worth and other Texas communities echoed those concerns.

Municipal groups are drafting language to ensure that cities would retain their longstanding power to regulate noise, traffic and adopt setbacks between wells and homes and businesses, so long as those rules were deemed “reasonable.”

They also suggest protecting city ordinances that haven't triggered litigation over the years – like heavily drilled Fort Worth’s, which Texas lawmakers routinely praise.

Staples said he is willing to consider tweaks to the bill, but not if new language allows cities to enforce overzealous setback rules.

“If there’s some language that can be reviewed, we’re happy to do so,” he said in an interview.

Earlier this week, his group released a video claiming that a patchwork of city drilling rules was hindering Texas energy producers and threatening the so-called "Texas miracle."

Darby, R-San Angelo, the chairman of the House Committee on Energy Resources, will consider language to clear up any confusion, said Jason Modglin, his chief of staff.

“He’s working with folks,” Modglin said.

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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