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Denton, Texas, banned fracking last year – then the frackers fought back

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The framed newspaper article in Adam Briggle’s office with the headline “Fracking banned” is from last November. It already reads like ancient history.

The north Texas city of Denton became a beacon for the anti-fracking movement when residents voted to prohibit the practice inside city limits . But victory was fleeting. The oil and gas industry was alarmed by the grassroots insurgency and the state’s Republican politicians struck back with a flurry of measures aimed at asserting the primacy of state control over local regulations.

Related: How a ruby-red Texas town turned against fracking

On Monday the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, signed House Bill 40, a law that in effect bans Denton’s ban and others like it elsewhere in the state. On Wednesday, trucks were moving equipment on to a future fracking site in a field by a busy road on the western outskirts of town.

“They’ve just handed the golden ticket to the oil and gas industry,” said Briggle, president of the Denton Drilling Awareness group and a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas.

A well pad sits only a couple of hundred feet from Apogee Stadium, home of the university’s Mean Green football team. But then, in this town of 125,000 people on the Barnett Shale about 40 miles northwest of downtown Dallas, well pads are close to lots of things. There are 280 wells within city limits.

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At worst, activists say, they are health and environmental hazards that produce noise and toxic fumes and suppress property values. At best they are eyesores dividing opinion and pockmarking a place that is solidly Republican but fancies itself as a laid-back cultural hub that is something of a miniature Austin.

Briggle arrived in Denton with his family in 2009 and discovered that three wells were being built in a neighbourhood where they had planned to move. It sparked an interest in hydraulic fracturing that quickly became a concern.

“What kind of town is going to be proud that they site industrial activities 200ft from kids’ bedrooms?” the 38-year-old said. “That’s crazy.”

Abbott said the state bill does a “profound job of protecting private property rights” by allowing mineral owners to exploit their land.

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Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association and previously the Texas agriculture commissioner, said the law “balances local control and property rights, while allowing Texas to continue to benefit from billions of dollars in annual state and local taxes that directly fund our schools, roads and essential services.”

Briggle, though, argues that the Texas energy industry was already thriving under the existing mix of local and statewide regulation and that most rights owners are not from Denton, meaning there is limited financial benefit for the community.

“I don’t think anyone who’s supporting local control here thinks it’s an absolute value. You don’t have the right to maximise the profit from your property at the expense of others around you,” he said. “Oil and gas is allowed in every zone [in Denton, yet] bakeries aren’t allowed in every zone because there’s a bit of morning truck traffic.”

In some parts of town, yellow poles the height of mailboxes seem to be on every street corner. They are markers warning of underground pipelines carrying gas from nearby wells. Signs a stone’s throw from houses caution: “Danger – no smoking”.

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At a bucolic-sounding new subdivision called Meadows at Hickory Creek, the middle-class suburban American dream collides with the Lone Star State’s business-first approach to energy regulation.

Big, smart houses line neat and quiet streets surrounded by fields, with convenient access to the interstate and a good school district. A 2,500 sq ft property can be bought for less then $250,000. Just off Vintage Boulevard, where more homes are being built, there is a square of fenced-off land. In other cities it’s the kind of space where developers would place a small park or playground. In Denton, it’s a fracking site. Two beige-coloured tanks protrude above the fence.

Maile Bush lives here, less than 500ft from a well pad. She believes the fumes are making her family sick and is reluctant to let her young children play outside.

“When we moved in you couldn’t tell it was a well pad site,” she said. “Should we move? We weighed up … but this is my life, these are my friends. We’d have to move off the shale in order to feel safe.”

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Even an urban area as densely populated as Arlington, the seventh-largest city in Texas and the location of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers sports stadiums, has 300 active gas wells. Last month, residents were evacuated because of a leak from a well adjacent to a church and dozens of homes, half a mile from an elementary school and a senior care centre.

Bush said that the passage of HB40 has left many activists “overall probably disheartened” and “kind of tired” but determined to carry on.

“I don’t think we’re really surprised,” she said. “Money speaks louder than the voice of the people.”

A spokeswoman for the city of Denton did not respond to requests for comment. The mayor, Chris Watts, told the Denton Record-Chronicle city leaders were deciding on their next move. Activists said they anticipate the bill may prompt protests and litigation and are turning their attention to holding politicians accountable.

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“The state is doing a lot to protect industry but it doesn’t feel like they’re doing a lot to protect people who vote for them. I don’t know what else we do except vote them out and that’s my focus now,” said Cathy McMullen, a home-help nurse who became an energetic anti-fracking advocateafter she and her husband moved to Denton to get away from a well that sprang up near their ranch in a neighbouring county, only for more gas wells to materialise close to their new home soon after they had moved in

According to the Texas Municipal League there are hundreds of municipalities with drilling regulations that could be affected by the new legislation.

“The industry might win this battle but I don’t know that they’re going to win the war,” McMullen said.“I’m talking to people from cities all over Texas who are going to fight back.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015

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