University of North Texas

The Frack Free Denton organization set up a table to distribute information at the University of North Texas' Earth Day commemoration in April.

This is the first of two articles analyzing results in elections on Nov. 4, 2014. This article examines local votes in a number of places.


By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

Badly bruised in an election that saw fossil-fuel-friendly Republicans take control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House, climate-action proponents looked to a scattering of local votes in Texas and a few other states for reasons to hope.

Atop that rather short list was the overwhelming approval of a ban on fracking by voters in the North Texas city of Denton, which capped years of intense controversy there over the oil- and gas-drilling practice that’s formally called hydraulic fracturing.

“Solutions are coming, from the ground up,” declared the international climate-action organization in an election analysis on its website. It cited, as examples, the Denton vote and the municipal election in the small San Francisco-area city of Richmond, where an oil refinery’s operations and huge campaign contributions dominated the debate.

“There’s a lesson here: courage counts, local action matters, and voters support bold and direct action against climate change,” added.

That statement reflected a key strategy of many climate-action advocates campaigning for replacement of fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources – tying their fight against global climate disruption with grassroots efforts to stop or reduce local impacts of oil and gas activities.

In recent years, an especially prominent and fiercely-fought battle in that war has involved the increased use of fracking, the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into underground shale rock to fracture it, allowing oil and natural gas to be pumped out.

Climate action?

But did the Denton and California votes, along with a others related to fracking a few locations, provide strong evidence that “voters support bold and direct action against climate change,” as asserted?

Reported pre-vote comments regarding some of those ballot initiatives showed the climate issue did motivate some voters, at least to some extent.

But there were also indications that the handful of nationally-watched local votes on oil and gas matters hinged more on traditional, localized concerns – industrial operations’ air and water pollution and other unwanted impacts on health, quality of life and property values – than they did on broader worries about worldwide climate changes resulting from the use of fossil fuels.

In Denton, a city of about 120,000 residents, for instance, anti-fracking campaigners did not link their appeals in any major way to the climate implications of fracking, which include releases of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and its facilitation of oil and gas production from shale deposits where that wouldn’t otherwise be viable.

The Frack Free Denton organization didn’t mention climate in its website’s “10 reasons to ban fracking in Denton.” And in post-election comments on the site, Cathy McMullen, the nurse who serves as the group’s president, said key reasons for celebration were the air pollution that the ban would prevent and the fact that Denton residents won’t “have to worry about our property value taking a nose dive because frackers set up shop 200 feet away” from homes.

Emphasizing two words with capital letters, McMullen wrote that the Denton campaign was not seeking to prohibit fracking everywhere but saw it as “our LAST RESORT. We tried for years to get government and industry to work with us [on stricter regulation of drilling within the city limits]. And they wouldn’t. This was the only way left open to us. And so we took it.”

She advised industry leaders to “do yourselves a favor and listen to concerned citizens” if they want to avoid similar bans in other cities with fracking.

The Denton vote was widely noted as the first such outright fracking ban to be enacted in a state whose economy, despite decades of diversification, still greatly depends on the fortunes of oil and gas and related industries such as petrochemicals.

One reason the Denton struggle was watched so closely, in Texas and beyond, was its perceived potential to be a precedent in other such fights, perhaps further braking the fracking boom that has unfolded in Texas and other states in recent years but may be slowing if crude oil prices continue their recent plunge.

Time will tell whether that happens – the outcome for Denton’s fracking ban itself is far from certain, for one thing, since industry and state government officials quickly filed legal challenges to block it.

Mixed results

In any event, while the lopsided Denton vote (59 percent for the ban) was a major development that may yet prove influential in the broader fight over fracking, it was not part of any sweeping repudiation of the practice last week by affected and potentially affected voters across the country.

In southeastern Ohio, a municipal fracking ban was approved by voters in Athens, a college town like Denton, which is home to the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University.

In the northeastern part of the state, however, voters in three communities rejected such bans – Kent (another college town), Gates Mill (an affluent Cleveland suburb) and Youngstown, which has struggled economically since the collapse of its steel industry in the 1970s. It was the fourth time since 2013 that Youngstown voters nixed a fracking ban, and by the biggest margin this time.

In California, which adopted its own regulatory plan for cutting climate-changing pollution over opposition by oil companies, voters in Santa Barbara County decisively defeated (by 63-37 percent) a proposal for a countywide ban on fracking and other high-intensity production methods.

While climate-change concerns were voiced by some ban supporters there, more immediate worries about possible water use and contamination by fracking activities appeared to be paramount in their campaign. The group that waged the petition drive to place the measure on last week’s ballot is called Santa Barbara Water Guardians. Its website home page prominently urged voters to “protect our water and health from fracking.”

Santa Barbara County’s population is about 435,000. Fracking bans were passed in two much less populous California counties – San Benito and Mendocino. None of the three counties has had anything approaching Denton’s experience with fracking.

The Denton Record Chronicle reported there were more than 270 gas wells within the city limits earlier this year. The online magazine Grist reported just before the election that so far, fracking had been used for “at least” one well in Santa Barbara County.

Regarding the other two California counties, the Los Angeles public radio station KPCC reported after the vote: “No public records of past fracking in San Benito exist; during the campaign, oil producers emphasized that no plans to frack there are underway. State records document no active wells within Mendocino county borders.”

A fracking ban was not on the ballot in the tribal election in North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. But the race for tribal leader, with only about 2,300 votes cast, drew national and international media attention because of its close connection to the issue.

Thanks in large part to fracking, the state has been experiencing an intense oil boom and now ranks second only to Texas in production. About a third of that oil comes from the reservation. The two candidates vying in the tribal election had both criticized the speed of oil development there under a previous leader.

North Dakota’s Prairie Public Broadcasting reported that oil development had “erased $125 million in debt and slashed a 70-percent unemployment rate to 2 percent,” but “also industrialized much of the reservation and brought traffic, crime and drugs.”

The winner, Mark Fox, was the candidate more openly critical of industry and had vowed to “slow [industry] down” if it “cannot do what it’s supposed to do in protecting our environment,” the network reported.

Big spenders

The election for mayor and city council members in Richmond, Calif., the other vote besides Denton’s that hailed as an example of “action against climate change,” likewise drew widespread media attention far beyond the city situated on the east side of San Francisco Bay, north of Oakland and Berkeley.

That was because Chevron, which operates a refinery in Richmond, a city of about 100,000 residents, had funneled an eye-opening $3.1 million in a controversial bid “to tilt the balance of power on a City Council that has grown increasingly hostile toward its mammoth refinery here in recent years,” the Contra Costa Times reported.

The context of city officials’ critical attitude, prompting the company’s effort to replace them with a friendlier municipal administration, most prominently included a refinery fire in 2012 that prompted a reported 15,000 residents of surrounding areas to seek medical attention.

The company’s free-spending electoral effort backfired. The Contra Costa Times reported that Richmond voters had “rejected the avalanche of spending by Chevron – perhaps the most ever by a corporation in a local election.”

The winners, the newspaper reported, were “a slate of progressive anti-Chevron candidates who promise resolute oversight of the city’s largest taxpayer in the years ahead,” including a lawsuit resulting from the fire.

Judging from the size of contributions to help defeat fracking-ban proposals, typically swamping those of ban proponents, the oil and gas industry regarded those efforts with concern, as well.

For example, in Santa Barbara County, a place with a long history of oil and gas activity, KPCC reported that an industry-funded group had funneled $7.6 million to the anti-ban campaign, helping it outspend pro-ban forces by 20-to-1.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in October that fracking-ban proponents’ political action committee had then raised about $50,000, compared to the $231,000 raised by the anti-ban Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, which argued for strong regulation of fracking instead of a ban.

Most of Denton Taxpayers’ contributions came in $75,000 contributions from each of three energy companies – Devon Energy, the Exxon-Mobil subsidiary XTO and Enervest Operating, the newspaper reported:

About $186,000 went to Fort Worth political consultant Bryan Eppstein’s firm for advertising, signs, direct mail and other campaign materials.

Besides quoting [Chamber of Commerce studies predicting a ban would damage the Denton economy], the website suggests that “American energy security is under attack” and that there are “Denton drilling ban supporters with Russian ties.” The website refers to letters from two Texas Railroad Commission members raising questions about Moscow secretly working with environmental groups to ban hydraulic fracturing in Europe to boost their need for Russian energy. It also says that [University of North Texas] philosophy professor Adam Briggle [a leader of Frack Free Denton] has appeared on a Russian news program talking about fracking.

Following the vote, the Record Chronicle examined the “weird weaponry” that had been deployed by the severely outspent pro-ban side:

A behind-the-scenes look at the anti-fracking campaign reveals how a relatively tiny group of combatants relied on creative tactics and political gimmickry to outmaneuver pro-fracking forces that outspent them 10-to-1. Their arsenal included puppet shows, flash mob-style improvisational dances and coffin races.

In the “Puppets for the Industry” show, for instance, the newspaper reported that a “bizarre cardboard creature” dubbed Propaganda Machine advised the pro-fracking Mr. Moneybags to “make them think they need you — make them think their kids will fall off broken swing sets if they don’t allow you to put [potentially cancer-causing] benzene in their lungs.”

Sharper tactics ahead?

Looking ahead, elements of the broader climate-action movement may have more such political theater in mind, judging from comments by the writer Bill McKibben, founder of, to students at the London School of Economics shortly before the U.S. election.

A U.K. news and analysis website called Responding to Climate Change reported:

The environmentalist and author may be a reluctant rabble-rouser, but he’s working hard at it. Reasoned arguments for climate action “did not win the day”, he tells a packed hall: it is time for a more confrontational approach.

In an interview before his talk, McKibben seemed undisturbed by the then-growing prospects of a big GOP win in the congressional election:

A Republican victory “won’t make things any easier,” he said, but “it is not as if Congress has been busy doing remarkable things for the last six years.”

Whether industry officials find themselves in a fight that’s explicitly waged in terms of global climate change or simply as a local effort to stop, slow or more tightly regulate oil and gas activities, they may elect to counter slashing critiques with more tactics like the “Russian ties” suggestion in Denton and a Chevron-backed group’s portrayal of one Richmond candidate it opposed as “a lobbyist for Cuban spies.”

The New York Times reported in late October that industry executives had received secret advice at a Colorado meeting in June to use a gloves-off approach when its drilling plans are challenged:

If the oil and gas industry wants to prevent its opponents from slowing its efforts to drill in more places, it must be prepared to employ tactics like digging up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities, a veteran Washington political consultant told a room full of industry executives in a speech that was secretly recorded.

The blunt advice from the consultant, Richard Berman, the founder and chief executive of the Washington-based Berman & Company consulting firm, came as Mr. Berman solicited up to $3 million from oil and gas industry executives to finance an advertising and public relations campaign called Big Green Radicals.

The company executives, Mr. Berman said in his speech, must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups. And major corporations secretly financing such a campaign should not worry about offending the general public because “you can either win ugly or lose pretty,” he said.


Bill Dawson is the editor of Texas Climate News. Previously, he was the environment writer for the Houston Chronicle and a senior writer at the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization based in Washington.

Image credit: Photo by Crystal Hollis,