Battling Big Oil in Texas

A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas
by Adam Briggle
Liverlight Publishing Corporation, 2015, 336 pages

The title of Adam Briggle’s new book, A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking, is something of a misnomer – the book isn’t so much a guide to fracking. It is, rather, quite a good guide to how a small group of people can beat Big Oil and help protect their homes and families from the ravages of extractive technologies.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, refers to the process of forcing a heady potion of water and chemicals underground into oil-bearing layers of the Earth to free up oil and gas so it can be pumped out of the ground. The technique is wildly successful at removing petroleum products from the rock formations that previously frustrated the fossil fuel industry.

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The effects of fracking, however, can be devastating. It has had a tremendous impacts on land use in the United States and has been a source of all kinds of pollution. The water-chemical mixture, the make-up of which is often considered proprietary information and therefore not available to the public, can leak into aquifers and wells, contaminating water, and can also off-gas, polluting the air. Use of pumping equipment and tank trucks to transport the oil and gas on a 24-hour basis can also cause pollution problems, including emissions and loud noise.

Briggle’s small town of Denton, Texas found itself in the midst of a fracking frenzy, with roughly 250 wells drilled within city limits, including near schools, playgrounds, and residences. People who own homes and property, unfortunately, often do not own the mineral rights buried in the land their property, which can be leased separately. As a result, some Denton residents faced industrial fracking right in their backyards. In fact, it seemed that the siting of bakeries was more stringently regulated than that of fracking wells within the town.

The many impacts of fracking came as a shock to the Denton community. Locals began to notice a slew of new health symptoms: headaches, asthma, and coughs, and other maladies likely related to fracking. They also complained of the noise coming from the oil and gas operations all night long.

Briggle, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, is a welcome guide to the struggle against fracking in his town – reading his book often feels like talking with a neighbor. He relates how, faced with these threats to health and well-being, he and a small group of residents banded together to form the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group to start addressing fracking in Denton.

At first, the activists approached the town council with a series of proposals to restrict fracking to certain parts of the town and provide buffer zones to schools and residences. However, once implemented, it quickly became clear that these ordinances were limited in effectiveness, as many fracking leases had been approved years in advance and were grandfathered in. The council was unwilling to enact stronger regulations, out of fear that they would be sued by the well-financed oil companies.

So Briggle and his allies organized a campaign to put the issue on the local ballot and pass a ban on fracking by vote of the good citizens of Denton. In November of 2014, they succeeded – residents voted to ban all fracking within city limits.

The ups and downs of this campaign are well told by Briggle. He describes how he and his band of volunteers went door-to-door talking to residents and handing out literature. And of course, they went to great lengths to get out the vote on election day. “I was accused of being a radical and a Russian,” he writes. “I made some powerful enemies. But I also made many friends, and I believe that together we made Denton a better place.”

Briggle and his fellow grassroots leaders were overwhelmed with the successful passage of the fracking ban, and his book provides a nice blueprint for folks as they fight to stop fracking in their own communities.

“What we saw in Denton,” Briggle concludes, “was a victory for grassroots democracy – the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen anymore in the age of big political money.

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