Texas Just Dealt a Major Blow to Environmentalists

May 19th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

In oil-rich Texas last month, energy companies looking for a way to continue fracking efforts in parts of the state where local bans have been invoked got some good news: On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a ban on fracking bans.

In light of what Abbott called runaway local overregulation, the law prevents towns and cities from using local laws to halt fracking and other natural gas and oil extraction methods. He said Monday that the law would protect private property rights from the "heavy hand of local regulation," the AP reports.

The move comes after the bill easily passed the Republican-controlled Texas legislature last month, where lawmakers insisted that the decision to go after a town's natural resources ultimately belongs to the state, not to local governments.

Public safety concerns over well safety and the rash of recurring small earthquakes recently led activists in Denton to pass the state's first local ban on fracking in November, which prompted oil and gas companies, as well as the state, to file lawsuits. It also triggered the new law. Democrats attempted to amend the bill to protect against drilling in parks and near day-care centers, but failed.

The Texas law is just the latest example of legislation propping up heavyweight oil and gas companies, which account for a significant amount of some states' economies, in responses to local attempts at regulating that industry. The Texas Oil and Gas Association's president, Todd Staples, called the bill version "balanced, fair and essential to ensure that the state's biggest job creator can continue to operate responsibly under robust and predictable regulation."

To critics, one important consideration in moves like these is the fact that they often overlook legitimate safety concerns that come along with nontraditional drilling methods, which, although popular and rapidly expanding, might have potentially dangerous ramifications. Earlier this month, researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a new study linking high levels of radon gas inside some 860,000 buildings in Pennsylvania to nearby fracking sites.

Wait, what is fracking again?

Hydraulic fracturing, or, fracking, is a popular oil and gas extraction method that involves drilling not just vertically, but also horizontally and then pumping millions of gallons of highly pressurized, chemical-laden water, and sand to break apart underground shale formations and release the gases and oils inside. But critics say that when underground formations are fractured, other harmful heavy metals and organic radioactive material can be brought to the surface along with the sought-after product, or seep into neighboring water supplies. Radon, for example, is often released from organic formations when they are ruptured, and is widely considered to be the world's second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

In the study of Pennsylvania, researchers noted a spike in radon levels beginning around 2004, when fracking took hold and became widely popular. "One plausible explanation for elevated radon levels in people's homes is the development of thousands of unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years," Brian S. Schwartz, a lead researcher and professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School, said in a release. "These findings worry us," he said.

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania's Environmental Protection Agency told ATTN: that it had not analyzed the report, though it did warn of the dangers of radon gases in an email. The practice is firmly entrenched in the state, with nearly 7,800 active wells.

Bans on the practice have grown in recent years.

Despite pressures and heavy lobbying efforts on the part of oil and gas companies over the years––the industry contributed more last year than it ever has in any midterm election cycle, $25 million of which went to Republicans, 4.3 million of which went to Democrats––the environmental and public health dangers associated with fracking over the years have led officials in other countries and some US states to take drastic actions, banning the method.

Most recently, Scotland announced a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction plans, which included fracking. As the Guardian noted, supporters hailed the move as "a very big nail in the coffin for the unconventional gas and fracking industry in Scotland," and a "huge victory for the communities, individuals and groups who have been campaigning to stop this dirty industry in Scotland."

The country's energy minister, Fergus Ewing, explained to the Scottish parliament that the moratorium would allow time for a governmental consultation on the technique, and a full public health impact report, allowing "everyone with a view to feed it in to government."

Both Ireland and Wales also have plans to ban the practice with new powers endowed by the British government, as well.

The U.K. countries are just the latest to instate or plan bans, though. In 2011, France became the first country to impose widespread bans on fracking, which included revoking standing permits, and invoking fines or jail time for violations. "Development of hydrocarbon resources underground is strategic for our country but not at any price," then-president Nicolas Sarkozy said. "This won't be done until it has been shown that technologies used for development respect the environment, the complex nature of soil and water networks."

The move was "deplore[d]" by French oil companies, but the country's Environment Minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, highlighted the public and official concern. "We are at the end of a legislative marathon that stirred emotion from lawmakers and the public," she said at the time. In 2013, the American energy company Schuepbach Energy filed a lawsuit claiming rights violations, though the ban was ultimately upheld by France's highest court.

France's precedent compelled Bulgaria to become the second country to ban fracking in early 2012, when officials responded to widespread anti-fracking protests, revoking a permit to US energy giant Chevron and imposing the ban. "Shale-gas exploration is a real danger for us," Aleksander Gorchev, a local council leader in the small town of Veliki Preslaz, said. "Everyone would be OK if this technology did not pose any problems, but that's not the case," he said, referring to the hazards fracking would pose to the region's environment and economy.

In Germany, a fracking moratorium has been in place since 2011, though the country recently approved a law that would set the "strictest conditions for fracking," according to Environment Minster Barbara Hendricks. "This law will enable us to circumscribe fracking so that it no longer represents a danger to people or the environment. As long as the risks cannot be fully evaluated, fracking will be banned," she said. According to ThinkProgress, the law would allow fracking in certain scientific cases, as well as commercial operations that pass strict safety tests. In recent years, other European countries have banned fracking: Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, and Northern Ireland have imposed moratoriums of their own, and certain regions of other countries like the canton of Fribourg in Switzerland have put operations on hold. Last year, a constitutional court in Spain ruled that the northern region of Cantabria's ban was illegal.

In the States, Vermont and New York have moved to ban the practice statewide, and activists in other states such as Florida, Colorado, California, and Michigan have pushed repeatedly for similar bans.

For more information on fracking, read ATTN:'s explainer.