The moment of reckoning has come at different times for the people of Denton, Texas, as they wait in fear for the outcome of an election May 7.
For the resident and outside zealots who saw their hopes of a ban on hydraulic fracturing smashed by the Texas Legislature, the reckoning came with a repeal by the City Council of its fracking ban ordinance a month later.
For council member Kevin Roden it came with the furious reaction from those same zealots to the Renewable Denton Plan, a plan that would have placed Denton in the forefront of American cities turning hard toward renewable energy.
For Joey Hawkins, a popular council member who voted against the original fracking ban and for its repeal, it was his recall — driven by those same activists — that voters will decide on election day.
And for Pete Kamp and the other community leaders who formed Citizens For Local Governance, the reckoning has come in the realization their effort to deal with what was once a local zoning matter has been hijacked by national and international groups whose underlying message is anarchy. Kamp, who opposes fracking, has nonetheless been working furiously to encourage voters to reject Hawkins’ recall and to vote for at-large incumbents Greg Johnson and Dalton Gregory, who are facing challengers spurred on by the activists.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Kamp, whose 11 years on the City Council ended before the fracking vote, told Watchdog. “I think what started out with good intentions just got out of hand. I think some people here are kind of stunned. There’s disbelief, doubt. Quite frankly, there are some people who are afraid.”
Call it fear or an extreme caution bordering on paranoia, but many of the key people involved in the fracking issue and its aftermath have gone quiet in the days before the election.
Email and phone requests for interviews with Hawkins and Roden, himself the subject of a failed recall attempt, were not returned. Same for Johnson and Gregory.
Representatives of the groups fomenting change on the City Council were also unresponsive.
Wooten, who refers to himself as a “climate alarmist” on his Twitter page, is on the May 7 ballot running to replace Gregory.
Adam Briggle, an associate professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of North Texas and whose activism with the Denton Drilling Awareness Group and Frack Free Denton goes back to the beginning of the struggle, also ignored Watchdog requests.
The silence extended to unanswered calls to several community leaders, including Mark Burroughs, a Denton attorney and former mayor who watched the rise of the outside political agitation but left office in 2014, months before Denton voters approved the fracking ban.
It was under Burroughs that the city assembled the Denton Gas Drilling Task Force, an advisory board, to recommend changes and update the ordinances governing the considerable oil and gas drilling within the city limits.
Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, said the committee was from the start under pressure from Briggle and the Denton Drilling Awareness Group.
Ireland believed he was volunteering in good faith and accepted some of the adversarial give and take. But in looking back, Ireland said he was struck by how personally he was demonized and how trenchant Denton Drilling Awareness was.
“I think there was pressure there to adopt ordinances just the way DDAG wanted them,” Ireland said. “It was a tense situation all the way through the process.”
After more than a year of work, an ordinance Ireland called tough on industry, but fair was discarded. “In the end it seemed the like the city of Denton ignored everything DDAG didn’t like,” he said.
What DDAG didn’t like was fracking, period, and the group began pressuring the City Council to take action. In July 2014, after more than eight hours of fevered debate among a crowd of 500, the council elected to put fracking on a citywide ballot.
During the debate, Tom Phillips, former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, warned that Denton would most likely be sued because a fracking ban was unconstitutional. Because he spoke as a lawyer representing the Texas Oil and Gas Association, his warning was treated as little more than partisan scaremongering.
“My initial response as an economist was that this was a private property issue,” Ireland said. “This was an illegal taking of people’s mineral rights. You just got the sense that it didn’t matter.”
Nearly 60 percent of Denton voters approved the fracking ban in November 2014. Before the end of the 2015 session, the Legislature had passed House Bill 40, preempting Denton’s — and any other — municipal ban and claiming state authority over oil and gas regulation.
In June, a month after the state law passed, the City Council repealed its fracking ordinance by a 6-1 vote. Only new council member and fracking opponent Keely Briggs voted against the appeal.
While no one estimate has toted it up, the ban cost Denton and its mineral rights holders millions of dollars in legal costs, lost oil and gas revenues and collateral economic damage.
‘Small, yet very loud’
But the outside environmental groups, apoplectic at the reversal, were just getting started.
A month before the repeal vote, Thomas Linzey, executive director of the national Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund wrote an editorial for the local daily, the Denton Record-Chronicle, urging the city to pass a “Community Bill of Rights,” in defiance of the authority of the state.
A month later he opined for Reuters that it might be good for a town like Denton to set an example for the country.
“If enough of these cases get in front of a judge,” Linzey wrote, “there is a chance we could start to have an impact within the judiciary. And if a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.”
Those outside agitators with taproots set in Denton are using the ballot box as the trigger. Earthworks donated $30,000 through its charity to support the fracking ban and set up its own Frack Free Denton page.
Although Wooten is running for office, the Blackland Prairie Facebook site is careful to point out that it hasn’t endorsed candidates locally.
The recall attempts on Hawkins and Roden have undermined the idea that outside environmentalists are disinterested parties in the upcoming election.
Because Hawkins had run unopposed, only 300 people voted for him. Only 75 signatures were needed on a petition to recall him. In a post on his council site in January, Roden called out those gathering signatures and trying to run Hawkins out of office.
“The effort to recall Denton City Councilman Joey Hawkins is a joke,” Roden wrote.
As if to acknowledge for the first time what the environmental activists were really up to, Roden fumed when they dismissed the Renewable Denton Plan calling for relying on renewable sources for 70 percent of the city’s energy generation by 2019.
The objection was to the plan calling for construction of two gas-fueled energy plants to power Denton when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Instead, the former fracking opponents have insisted the city go entirely renewable by the same date.
“There is a small, yet very loud portion of our population who hold a fundamentalist position against the use of fossil fuels,” Roden wrote. “Those holding this position were emboldened by the historic citizen vote banning hydraulic fracking just a year ago.
“At the same time, I am not interested in allowing a small minority of our population with such fundamentalist views to dictate the future of Denton’s energy policy and keep Denton from moving forward toward a more sustainable and renewable energy tomorrow.”
In early November Kamp got hold of a flyer for an upcoming panel discussion at the local MLK Center titled “To Change Everything — The Promise of Anarchism sponsored by Blackland Prairie Rising Tide. (You can see the flyer and read additional documents here.)
The flyer changed everything for Kamp. Three weeks later she helped register Citizens For Local Governance as a political action group.
In December, council member Johnson called for an investigation into the group’s activities in Denton, as Watchdog reported.
Kamp’s citizen’s group two weeks ago sent out its own flyers warning voters that Rising Tide was behind Hawkins’ recall and supporting the candidates running against Gregory and Johnson.
The candidates fell all over themselves insisting to a local reporter they were not in any way connected to the outside environmental groups. Group representatives mocked Kamp and her organization on social media.
Kamp says she cannot believe what has become of her hometown and she hopes the flyers reach enough people before the May 7 election.
“I’m fairly sure Joey won’t be recalled, but beyond that I really cannot make an educated guess,” she said. “I hope people are alarmed, the same way I was. Anarchy — that’s pretty serious stuff.”