The future of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Barnett Shale town of Denton, TX, will likely be in voters’ hands this November. For one reluctant activist pushing to ban the well stimulation practice, the trip to the polls began years ago.

“It’s the smells, which are overpowering when they’re 200 feet from a home. It’s the constant noise, and then it’s the truck traffic because they’re bringing so much water in and taking the produced water out,” Frack Free Denton activist Cathy McMullen told NGI’s Shale Daily.

Due to the efforts of McMullen and other residents of the town about 40 miles northwest of Dallas, enough signatures have been gathered to put the question of a frack ban before voters. Unlike elsewhere in Texas and other parts of the country, fracking isn’t being blamed for well water contamination (Denton has a municipal water system) or for earthquakes (“In Texas…the ground shifts all the time,” McMullen said).

The frustration of McMullen and her fellow residents is largely with the smells and noise associated with fracking. These consequences of energy development have coalesced with suburban sprawl that has pushed housing up against previously abandoned wells that are now being re-drilled under legacy permits. It’s all coming together to potentially make Denton the bellwether on fracking in the Lone Star state.

“This issue has the attention of a lot of people because that kind of ordinance — basically a ban on hydraulic fracturing — has not happened in the state of Texas, so it certainly has the attention of a lot of people, just because of its historical significance,” Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, told NGI’s Shale Daily. A ban on fracking in the Barnett, or any other shale play, is a de facto ban on drilling in the end.

According to website and based on Railroad Commission of Texas data, there are seven producing operators in Denton, 106 producing leases and 202 drilled wells. Last November Denton wells produced 1.13 Bcf of gas. Texas statewide gas production in November was 612.48 Bcf.

It was 2010 when McMullen and others took their concerns over fracking-related noise and air pollution to Denton City Hall.

“We asked for vapor recovery units,” McMullen said. “We asked for lined frack pits; we asked for electric motors, for no-bleed pneumatic valves, for set hours of when the activity can go on for noise, decibel readings they couldn’t go above. We asked for air monitoring. We have other cities around here that have those similar ordinances, so we knew that it wouldn’t be legally challenged. We felt that we were within our rights to ask for those things.”

The city formed a task force with five voting members and two non-voting members from city staff. Ireland was one of the five voting members and was designated as one of those representing the “industry perspective.” McMullen said the task force was stacked in favor of the energy industry. Ireland said that wasn’t the case.

Task force recommendations were ultimately vetted by some consultants; changes were made, and city council approved a new ordinance that Ireland doesn’t remember as being any more or less restrictive than what was proposed by the task force. The city had previously — before formation of the task force — doubled the well setback distance in the city from 600 to 1,200 feet, Ireland said.

For McMullen, the trip to city hall that started the task force process ended up being a losing proposition.

“So now the industry is allowed to vent and flare and have unlined pits and to do this activity 250 feet from homes,” she said. “There are no restrictions, basically, on them at all.” A 65 decibel limit was placed on noise; however, McMullen said that when a complaint was investigated, police and inspectors said “there were so many loopholes in the ordinance that they could not enforce that point.”

But the crux of the problem has nothing to do with the city’s current ordinance on drilling, Ireland said. The residents’ ire is mainly due to the re-drilling of old oil wells under legacy permits that excuse the operator from the city’s well setback and other requirements.

Eagleridge Energy affiliate Eagleridge Operating is re-drilling old vertical underperforming shallow wells, drilling them deeper and horizontally and targeting the Barnett Shale. While the wells were lying dormant, housing developments went up right next to them. The city tried to stop the drilling with a restraining order but was thwarted in court.

Eagleridge is drilling under permits that were issued by the municipal fire department, before the city had an oil/gas division, Ireland said. “When the fire department issued these permits, they permitted entire pad sites; that’s just the way they did it,” he said. “And the permit was for perpetuity…so as many wells as anyone wanted to drill on that pad site were permitted in perpetuity.

“Most of these wells when they were originally drilled were out in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t any subdivisions or anything around them. Over the years, subdivisions, and even the university there, had built up to, in many cases, these pad sites.”

An Eagleridge executive did not respond to requests for an interview (The company is being sued by more than three-dozen Denton residents who claim its activities have diminished property values).

McMullen and her neighbors are now living amid old wells that not so many years ago were unknown to them or at least ignored.

The home health nurse said some of her neighbors and area residents have experienced respiratory problems, and emissions related to fracking are suspected to be the culprit. She said residents who rely on inhalers for respiratory problems are having to use the devices far more frequently since drilling and fracking came to town.

A University of Texas at Austin (UT) researcher recently published a paper in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal on fracking and its effects on urban areas. According to Rachael Rawlins, a UT architecture faculty member in the Community and Regional Planning Program, state and federal regulations do not effectively address cumulative emissions in urban areas, the risk of malfunctions in equipment, encroaching land uses, or the potential interactive effects of mixtures of chemicals.

It might be tempting to dismiss McMullen as a NIMBY (not in my backyard) malcontent, but she’s neither anti-drilling nor an enthusiastic supporter. “The noise is obnoxious, and the diesel smell can give you a little bit of a headache, but…you’re just going to be annoyed” by it. Fracking is something else entirely, she said.

An East Texas native originally from Kilgore, McMullen grew up with the energy patch not far away. “This is not your daddy’s oil and gas drilling, what’s going on now. I remember being around it as a child and it was not like this, ever.”

In 2004 McMullen and her husband, Ron Watson, moved to the country around Decatur, TX, in Wise County for retirement. They bought 11 acres. “When the first well went in, I had no clue what it was, but we quickly figured it out and thought we’d move into town to…if we were in town, we’d be protected. That was how we felt.” That was in 2009.

About six months after McMullen and Watson moved to Denton (Pop. 121,123), drilling was getting under way in the city, “300 feet from a park and a hospital and a nursing home and 1,600 feet from our home,” she said.

“We just decided in 2009, ‘I’m not going anymore. This is it. I’m just going to stand and fight here,’ and that’s what my husband and I have done. We worked through the channels with the city. I’ve been down to Austin and spoke before the Railroad Commission. I’ve gone to all my state senators and representatives, and they all send me back and say, ‘You need to deal with this on a local, municipal grassroots level…’ That’s what we’re doing.”

Others in Texas might do the same. The grassroots petition path to voters is available in a number of Texas cities, Ireland said. “The procedure that is being followed there [in Denton] apparently is a fairly common procedure,” he said. “For sure, this whole Denton process has attracted the attention of environmental activist groups worldwide.”

McMullen and her fellow activists are still collecting signatures, although they already have enough to get on the ballot. “We’re just wanting everybody who wants to sign the petition to be able to.” She has “no doubt” that voters will approve a ban in November. “…[T]he city has stated if the voters approve it, then they are legally bound to defend it. So then I expect the lawsuits to start happening.”

And they will if Dallas is any indication. Fort Worth-based Trinity East Energy LLC is suing the city for millions of dollars after the city council voted last year to deny the company the permits it needed to drill on leases for which it had paid the city more than $19 million (see Shale Daily, Feb. 14). This followed a vote by Dallas City Council to increase drilling setbacks within the city limits, which essentially banned drilling in Dallas (see Shale Daily, Dec. 11, 2013).

It remains to be seen whether the issue will make it on the ballot (signatures have to be verified and deadlines met), but it’s almost a foregone conclusion. If a ban is approved, it’s unclear whether it would stick. A ban could be challenged by opponents who say state laws make the local ordinance illegal, and landowners might sue over what they could claim is an unconstitutional taking of their mineral rights.

Whatever happens, it won’t have happened overnight for McMullen.

“Our backs are against the wall now…” McMullen said. “We have no other alternative. We’ve tried everything that we can think of. This is the last option we have.”