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Texas House Lawmakers Preliminarily Approve Frack-Friendly Bill

At midday Friday, after three hours of debate, Texas state Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo) had fought back 10 amendments to his House Bill 40, which is intended to prevent municipalities from enacting ordinances that interfere with oil/gas drilling. HB 40 was passed to engrossment on a vote of 122-18 and faces one more vote in the House before passing to the state Senate.

Late last month the Texas House Energy Resources Committee adopted an HB 40 substitute in a 10-1 vote. The substitute came out of talks with the Texas Municipal League (TML) and the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA). To get the support of both organizations, Darby pledged to keep amendments off HB 40 unless they were agreed to by both TML and TXOGA.

TXOGA cheered the bill's passage in the House, saying Friday that it "...clarifies the responsibilities of cities and the state for regulating the oil and gas industry...[and] represents a fair solution that balances local control and property rights and affirms that the state should regulate oil and gas operations as it has for decades."

TML did not support the legislation but pledged to remain neutral on it after winning concessions in the committee’s substitute bill (see Shale Daily, March 31).

On Friday House lawmakers -- even those expressing support for the bill -- lined up with amendments in hand.

Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) was probably the most vocal, stepping up with two amendments. His first proposal was to insert wording to specifically protect city parks and other property from being forced to allow drilling. "Nothing is off limits" as the bill is presently written, Turner said, adding that subjective language in the bill -- "commercially reasonable" -- would be a "goldmine for lawyers" as challenges to the law would sprout.

In discussion of the proposed amendment, Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) cited a case in Dallas where the city prevented an operator from drilling in a city park and was hit with a lawsuit (see Shale Daily, Aug. 30, 2013).

Turner's other amendment would have grandfathered city ordinances that are more than five years old and prevented them from being challenged under the legislation. The bill as written does favor ordinances that are at least five years old and created with input from the industry as long as they have not prevented drilling activity, but it does not give them grandfather status. Speaking on his amendment, Turner criticized Darby's pact with TML and TXOGA.

"I think TML is wrong, and I think TML ought to represent legislators," Turner said, adding that just because the bill is "clean" without amendments does not mean that it is "good." Turner said he probably would vote for the bill, but said his amendment would make it better. "Just because the majority carries doesn't mean the majority is right. I hope that in due time this bill does not come back to haunt us."

The House bill and companion SB 1165, which was introduced by Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), were drafted in response to a fracking ban enacted last year by the city of Denton (see Shale Daily, March 24; March 12) as well as similar efforts under way in other Texas municipalities.

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