Investigations Politics

Local Control? Texas Fracking Billionaires Say ‘Not So Fast’

Brie Shea

Why would Texas, a state renowned for its fierce defense of local rights, prohibit the good people of Denton—and any other municipalities—from banning hydraulic fracturing if that is what they choose to do? Look no further than Dan and Farris Wilks.

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that would, at first blush, seem at odds with the state’s ethos of local control and individual rights.

Commonly referred to as the “Denton Fracking Ban,” the law should actually be called the Fracking-Ban Ban.

That’s because it forbids cities and towns from banning hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to extract methane gas from shale and other below-ground mineral deposits. Fracking has been linked to a number of environmental threats: dangerous chemicals flowing into rivers, poisoned drinking water, and dozens of earthquakes in states like Oklahoma, which had relatively few tremors before frackers Swiss-cheesed the place.

So why would Texas, a state renowned for its fierce defense of local rights, prohibit the good people of Denton—and any other municipality—from banning this dangerous practice if that is what they choose to do?

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The answer, it seems, has more to do with money than political consistency, according to reporting by Rewire. And the money is flowing from none other than Dan and Farris Wilks, two Texan brothers who have made billions from the fracking industry, and who stand to lose if uppity locals start banning fracking.

Rewire has identified more than $800,000 in 2014 Texas campaign contributions from the Wilks brothers and their wives based on public records. The extent of their contributions puts the Wilkses at the top of a list of donors from the oil and gas sector—an industry that has dominated Texas political life for decades. According to a recent report by Texans for Public Justice, business people from the oil and gas industry gave $1.7 million to all 31 Texas senators, and $3.8 million to 144 members of the house (out of 150 members.) This amounted to $56,000 per senator and $25,000 per representative. Farris and JoAnn Wilks were particularly generous, giving $239,500 in contributions, while Dan and Staci Wilks gave $75,000.

Every single legislator who received money from the Wilkses in 2014 voted “yes” for the bill. And Gov. Abbott, who signed it into law, took in over $30,000 from the brothers last year.

This, despite Abbott’s supposed view of how Texas does politics: “We don’t put our trust in the government, we put our trust in the people, and we will never forget that government is the servant of the people—not the other way around,” he said during his inauguration speech.

Jesse Coleman, a researcher for Greenpeace USA, says that the fracking industry’s push to outlaw local bans is deeply hypocritical.

“Here you have the crux of democracy in Denton, Texas, where people got together and voted on what they wanted,” Coleman told Rewire in a phone interview. “And now the same industry that is saying that the federal government can’t regulate them, is saying that, no, even on the local level, they can’t regulate them because they don’t want any regulation at all.”

Over the past few years the Wilks brothers have emerged as major backers of the far right, particularly Texas Tea Partiers.

On the surface, their philosophy seems to align with the Tea Party’s focus on individual freedom. Deeply religious, the Wilkses are heavily involved in their church, the Assembly of Yahweh (7th Day) in Texas, and have given to causes that claim to defend religious liberty. Between 2011 and 2013 Farris and his wife gave $1.5 million to the Liberty Counsel, a religious advocacy group associated with Liberty University known for filing lawsuits attacking abortion and LGBT rights. They are also big contributors to the American Family Association and Focus on the Family, two of the largest far right-wing religious groups in the country.

In sermons posted online, Farris Wilks—the elder of the brothers, who serves as a pastor at their church—has decried government interference in “individual liberty.”

In a sermon from November 2012, Farris said he was “bummed out” about President Obama’s re-election, and went on to exclaim that, “government is gaining ground and our liberty is being aborted.”

In another sermon, Farris said, “The more government you have, the less freedom you have.”

However, in truth, the Wilks family’s concept of freedom and liberty seems to extend only as far as the practice of their religion, and their freedom to expand a lucrative fracking empire against the will of other Texans who may disagree.

Rewire has documented their donations to groups who seek to strip away the constitutional right to determine whether to carry a pregnancy to term, as well as efforts to indoctrinate school children with extreme interpretations of Judeo-Christian teachings—including sexist, misogynistic, and anti-LGBTQ messages.

Clearly, all of these groups seek to inhibit individual freedom when it comes to choices that don’t align with the Wilks brothers’ narrow and fundamentalist worldviews.

So in reality, it should come as little surprise that the Wilkses are also willing to thwart local autonomy when it suits their interests, this time in the form of laws that prohibit local communities from enacting fracking bans.

The Denton Fracking Ban was just one of 11 related bills that were proposed during this legislative session in Texas.

Two other similar bills were authored by Republican Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville), who received $100,000 in campaign contributions from the Wilkses during 2014, according to public records. The bills, SB 440 and SB 720, would have prohibited communities in Texas from banning hydraulic fracturing specifically. Ultimately, these bills fell to the wayside as support gathered around the Denton Fracking Ban, but the fact that they were authored and introduced speaks volumes about the push within the legislature to pass these kinds of laws.

The Denton Fracking Ban—HB 40—means that local municipalities in Texas will no longer be able to regulate oil and gas activity within their borders.

HB 40 preempts most regulation of oil and gas operations by local municipalities and all other political subdivisions, unless it meets four conditions, namely, that the ordinance:

  1. Must regulate only above ground activity;
  2. Must be “commercially reasonable”;
  3. Must not effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation from occurring; and
  4. Must not otherwise be preempted by another state or federal law.

While the main point of fracking is obviously to extract resources from below ground, the practice causes substantial environmental destruction above ground as enormous trucks transport huge quantities of wastewater and equipment to and from drilling sites.

The law defines “commercially reasonable” as:

a condition that permits a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas.

In other words, the law ensures that any restriction would not actually stop the “full” commercial exploitation of a possible fracking site.

The fracking-ban ban was introduced in direct response to a growing movement of local municipalities considering bans on fracking out of concerns about the health and environmental risks associated with drilling operations in their neighborhoods. Denton’s proposal was on their ballot in last November’s election, and easily passed with 59 percent of votes.

These kinds of measures caught the attention of newly minted Gov. Abbott. In a speech in early January, before he even officially took office, Abbott referred to fracking bans as part of an alarming trend that he called the “California-nization” of Texas.

“The truth is Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” he said in a speech to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

It’s an interesting spin on laws that are written and supported by the very type of local communities that Texas usually glorifies, especially when it comes to insisting that “local control” is best for issues like managing jails and other services.

But not, apparently, when these local initiatives jeopardize the interests of the state’s deep-pocketed fracking barons.

It’s not just Texas that has moved to ban fracking bans. Similar legislation has been popping up across the country. The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill, HB 1205, that called for a study of the “potential hazards and risks that high-pressure well stimulation poses to surface water or groundwater resources” along with basic, limited regulation on high-pressure well stimulations. At the same time however, the bill contained language that could have been interpreted as a ban on the ability of local communities to adopt their own regulations on fracking, including banning the technique. The bill, and its companion SB 1468, ultimately died in the senate.

In Oklahoma at least eight bills were filed this session to prevent local municipalities from banning or regulating drilling operations. Last week, the governor signed SB 809, prohibiting counties and cities from banning hydraulic fracturing. The bill also prohibits local bans on wastewater disposal.

Greenpeace’s Coleman told Rewire that banning fracking bans are a key strategy of an industry that is increasingly worried by mounting organized local resistance to the technique.

“The [fracking] industry’s strategy is to silence criticism on a local level and to prevent recourse for local people,” Coleman said. “This is something they’re pursuing in all of the states where drilling is a big deal. They’re pursuing the strategy of taking away the rights of citizens of small towns from determining whether they want fracking.”

It should be noted that the Wilks brothers were not involved with any campaign contributions in Florida or Oklahoma, according to our review of public records.

But the brothers are associated with another type of assault on efforts to curtail fracking in a state where they do have significant land interests.

A U.S. Senator from Montana, Steven Daines, has taken the same fight in a different vehicle to Washington, D.C.

A member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Daines recently slammed the Department of Interior’s new regulations on hydraulic fracturing on federally owned lands, in a March 20 post on his Facebook page.

“States like Montana have successfully overseen hydraulic fracturing for years, but once again, the Obama administration seems more set on overregulating our energy industry than promoting the responsible development of our nation’s vast energy resources,” Daines wrote.

The new rule requires oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use to conduct hydraulic fracturing operations, as well as regulating the storage of wastewater.

Daines is also a co-sponsor of U.S. Senate Bill 828, legislation seeking to clarify that a state has the sole authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal land within that state’s boundaries. The bill is sitting in committee and is not expected to pass.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Farris and his wife, JoAnn, contributed $25,000 ($12,500 each) to Daines via the Daines Montana Victory Committee in February of this year.

The family has a profound interest in whether the federal government regulates fracking on public lands, and their interest is especially acute in Montana.

The Wilkses are currently the top landowners in Montana with 341,845 acres. Last year, the brothers were in negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for a controversial land exchange. Many hunters in the state were opposed to the deal and were worried they would lose access to hunting areas. Locals were also worried the land would be used for oil and gas exploration. The BLM ultimately took the deal off the table, much to the dismay of the Wilks family. For their part, the brothers insisted they wanted to preserve the area and use it for hunting.

Their company, Interstate Explorations, ranked 60 out of the top 150 Montana oil producers of 2014.

And these Texans have used their wealth to attempt to safeguard those interests. According to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Wilks family gave money to 70 percent of Montana Republican legislators in 2012, for a total of $51,040.

It seems, however, that the family held back significantly with their 2014 contributions, only awarding 13 different candidates with the maximum limit of $170 each, according to a search of the Montana Campaign Electronic Reporting System.

While the amounts that the Wilkses have contributed to Texas and Montana legislatures in recent years would seem enormous to most people, they amount to a drop in the bucket for families who are worth a collective $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

Dale Eisman, spokesman for Common Cause, a D.C.-based government watchdog, said the fracking industry has joined the ranks of other powerful, monied sectors in exerting their financial might to overwhelm democratic institutions.

“Whether it’s fracking or any other issue, to paraphrase Justice Breyer, when money calls the tune, the people aren’t heard,” Eisman told Rewire. “Big money players are able to exert themselves and get what they want as opposed to what the general public wants, and this is what we see on issue after issue.”

“This is the disease at the heart of our democracy right now,” he said.

Sharona Coutts contributed to this report.

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