AUSTIN (AP) — Oil and gas companies putting Texas awash in money moved closer Friday to stopping cities from banning fracking, an early victory for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his sights on what he calls runaway local overregulation.
The Texas House, which Republicans control by a 2-to-1 margin, overwhelmingly passed a bill that would effectively prohibit cities and counties from denying access to natural gas goldmines underground.
A scramble to change the law comes months after voters in Denton, a university town near Dallas, imposed a hydraulic fracturing ban to keep encroaching drilling bonanzas outside their city limits. Their opposition was driven by recurring small earthquakes and safety worries from gas wells that have become ubiquitous near urban areas.
But Republicans say the state — and not local governments — is in charge of what’s below ground.
“In the absence of this bill, a statewide patchwork of oil and gas regulation is likely,” said Republican state Rep. Drew Darby, who authored the measure known as HB40. “It would hamstring the mainstay of the Texas economy.”
The bill still needs approval in the Senate, which is expected, before reaching Abbott’s desk.
Abbott has mostly stayed clear of the contentious debate that pitted cities against oil and gas companies. But before taking office in January, he bemoaned what he saw as a rise in local governments putting restrictions on everything from plastic bags to cutting trees.
City leaders and municipal lobbyists saw it as hypocrisy among Republicans who are quick to scold federal overreach and preach local control for schools.
Drilling operations contributed more than $12 billion to Texas state coffers in 2013 alone, accounting for about 4.5 percent of the biannual budget. The oil and gas sector made more than $400 million in political contributions in Texas in the last election cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Democrats tried softening the bill with amendments to ban drilling in parks, near daycares or give local officials authority to shut off production in the face of natural disasters like hurricanes.
Darby rebuffed them all, saying the bill was a “painfully crafted” compromise with the Texas Municipal League, a powerful lobby that had originally fought the measure.
Last week, a gas well leak at a fracking site near Arlington led to the evacuation of about 50 homes. No one was injured, but environmentalists and Democrats tried seizing on the timing of the leak in hopes of slowing down the bill.
Republicans say cities would still keep authority to regulate the above-ground effects of fracking, such as traffic and noise — but only so long as local officials are being “commercially reasonable.”
Environmentalists predicted heightened danger in local communities, while Democrats see imminent court challenges.
“This is a bill that puts in place litigation from one coast of Texas to the other,” Democratic state Rep. Sylvester Turner said.
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