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Texas Lawmakers Target Local Drilling Ordinances

BJ Austin
Dallas elected officials and environmentalists sound an alarm over fast-track bills in the state legislature that would preempt local oil and gas regulations.

A bill on the fast track in Austin would pre-empt city ordinances regulating oil and gas drilling.  A vote scheduled next Tuesday in the Texas House is setting off alarm bells at Dallas City Hall. 

House Bill 40 says the state should be the sole regulator of oil and gas operations for “efficient management of a key industry in this state.”

The bill says cities may regulate above ground activity such as noise, traffic, reasonable setbacks from schools and homes. All other city regulation would be preempted by the state. And any local regulation must be deemed "commercially reasonable."  

Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston says the bill would basically kill the Dallas drilling ordinance, which he says has become a model.

“I get asked to speak in other cities about how to develop an ordinance similar to what we have, and I’ve got my own state legislature trying to take it away from his," Kingston said at a City Hall news conference. "It would be humorous if it weren’t real.”

Kingston says public safety would be in jeopardy because the bill would gut the requirement that drillers disclose all chemicals and substances used underground and above. He says Dallas Fire Rescue and other first responders must know what they’re dealing with.

“When we rely on DFR, our public safety professionals to protect us, then we get excellent fire safety and emergency response from them," Kingston said.  "When we rely on the state of Texas, the state government of Texas to provide for local health and safety, we get the West explosion.”

A report after the 2013 West fertilizer plant blast criticized lax state regulation of ammonium nitrate storage.

The introduction of the bill comes after residents of Denton voted to ban fracking, necessary for gas drilling.

The sponsor of HB 40, Republican Drew Darby of San Angelo, says the bill would allow cities to negotiate some things with drilling operators, but not ban drilling. 

Todd Staples, the former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, is now director of the Texas Oil and Gas Association. He told the Texas House Energy Resources Committee the Denton vote and city drilling ordinances are threatening the Texas oil and gas industry.  The bill’s authors say state regulations in place provide effective and environmentally sound regulation.

North Texas environmentalist Rita Beving urged mayors, city attorneys and fire chiefs to call House Speaker Joe Strauss to express their alarm over the bill and its fast track.

“The drilling lobbyists pushed this bill through the house and senate committees despite fierce protest by many of our cities and organizations from our region," Beving said. "It appears that many of our elected officials want to just hand the keys over to oil and gas and let them do what they will.”

Debate in the Texas Senate has not been scheduled. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.