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Fracking Bans Complicate Oil and Gas Landscape

Fracking, an oil production process that involves injecting pressurized water, sand and chemicals to break up shale rocks underground to release gas and oil, has been responsible for oil and gas booms in Texas and other states where shale oil exists. However, fracking also appears to cause earthquakes and to possibly contaminate ground water, making it a controversial process in many parts of the country. Residents say that odors from the process create health problems.

Even in Texas, where oil and gas are king, some cities are considering a ban on fracking. Denton has already enacted one. In November, voters approved the state's first fracking ban on Election Day.

Banning fracking within the limits of a city is more complicated than just passing an ordinance. In Texas, property rights are separate from mineral rights and it is possible to own one or both. This makes the legal landscape more complicated and raises questions about who has the right to control extraction activities such as fracking.

Texas is not the only state grappling with issues involving fracking. State courts in New York and Pennsylvania have ruled that some cities can control what happens to the oil and gas in the shale underground. However, the opposite occurred in Colorado, where courts ruled against the efforts of one city to enact a ban.

In Texas, powerful interests are lined up against individual cities seeking to prevent fracking within their boundaries. The oil and gas industry is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission. The General Land Office, which owns 13 million acres of land and mineral rights, funds public education in the state with revenues from the land it owns. The office now belongs to an industry group hoping to prevent bans such as the one in Denton from taking effect. According to a news report, a spokesman for the group says that a ban violates a state law that mandates the exploitation of mineral rights.

Other Texas cities have begun work to ban fracking. Presidio, Alpine, Reno and Azle are at various stages in their efforts to stop the process within their boundaries. But economics may be the solution to the problem. With oil prices plummeting, the expensive process of fracking may become economically unviable for oil companies, at least in the short term. They may voluntarily pull back from this method of exploiting shale oil, as has already begun to happen in North Dakota. 

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