This is one of a series of personal stories told on this site. You can find others by clicking here.
McMullen’s story is an inspiring one, and it should help County Commissioners in Carbon and Stillwater Counties understand the importance of listening to local citizens who seek nothing more than to protect their property rights and their way of life.
According to the Guardian, “the oil and gas companies probably would be fracking still in Denton if they had not completely dismissed McMullen’s concerns.”
“They underestimated us completely,” McMullen said. “I think they all just thought: ‘Oh, it’s just Cathy.’ I don’t think they saw the storm clouds on the horizon, and that industry was creating this storm, and that it was going to blow into town, and everybody was just sick of it.”
Lined up against the power of the oil and gas industry, it’s probably pretty easy to underestimate McMullen, a 56-year-old home help nurse. She’s not political, and didn’t even register to vote until a few years ago.
Move to Denton, 2009
She moved to Denton with her husband in June, 2009 to escape drilling in nearby Wise County, the birthplace of fracking and the home of Bob and Lisa Parr, whose personal story we told last April. At that time a well was going in on the fence line of McMullen’s former home on 11 acres.
McMullen was not knowledgeable about fracking. What she was looking for was a safe place to live, and the century-old farmhouse she found in Denton seemed like a perfect place for her growing collection of rescue animals, which now includes five dogs and a cat.
“I am ashamed to say I was one of those apathetic people who are blind to what’s going on,” she says. She doesn’t have strong views about the oil and gas industry, she just believes that local people should have personal property rights that can’t be taken over by drilling.
But when you run away from fracking, fracking often follows in hot pursuit.They had been in their new house for just a few days when a familiar marker went up in a nearby field – a row of five posts with pink plastic flags. “I knew they intended to put wells there,” she said. “My heart sank.”
Her husband suggested they leave, but McMullen says she told him, “If we run now, we’re going to be running forever. If we stay in Texas, we just decide to stay and fight it’.” And fight she has, for the last five years.
Attempts at change
The first thing she tried to do was convince Range Resources, the operator, to move the wells from one end of the field to the other, away from a hospital and a school. They refused, so she talked to the mayor. He told her to let it go. The wells went in. It’s a familiar story from many parts of the country, but McMullen had no say because she owned only the surface rights to her property.
She raised $3,700 from her neighbors for air quality monitors, and for water and soil samples. She kept a log of the smells coming off the well.
She refused to quit. “I think that was the thing that just kept me going all these years: who the hell do they think they are? By any stretch of the imagination, why is it OK to allow heavy industrial use right close to a hospital and a playground? From the wellhead to a swing set was 536 feet.”
A year later, the city council began to work on a new set of regulations for fracking in the city limits, and McMullen was invited to participate on the committee that was working on this. She was a voice in the wilderness, at many meetings the only member of the group who voiced concerns about fracking.
“They were dismissive. They were very paternal. They were: look, we know you kids don’t understand this, but we are doing this for your own good,” she said. “They were disrespectful.”
New regulations were adopted in early 2013. While some restrictions were placed on fracking, McMullen felt they were just a drop in the bucket. According to the Guardian, “industry did not feel bound even by those relatively light restrictions. Soon after the ordinance came in, oil drillers began to frack two wells near a new suburban development, which is full of young families. McMullen (was) horrified – and so were the local residents.”
As the wells went in, the stench in the new neighborhood got people angry enough to take action. McMullen decided it was time to press for a fracking ban. It was a pipe dream. It had never happened in Texas before, but McMullen felt there was no choice because there was no support from local regulators to make substantive change.
“They figured…we wouldn’t get the signatures”
“Nobody took us seriously at first,” she remembers, “because nobody has really challenged them in the state of Texas. They figured we would be squashed. We wouldn’t get the signatures.”
She found a lawyer, who is not willing to share his name, and wrote a ballot initiative. The wording of the measure specifically banned fracking – not drilling – a tactic intended to show that opponents were not against all industry activity, McMullen said.
When the measure was put to a vote at the city council last July, nearly 600 people spoke up in support of the ban. The city council, in a significant tactical blunder, voted against a ban. However, the measure did go to the ballot last month.
The campaign was brutal. The oil industry used every bit of its resources to fight the ban, putting up money and recruiting a former mayor and university officials to be the spokespeople for fracking. They tied a loss of fracking revenue to school quality, arguing that a ban would hurt the schools. Flyers circulated reading, “Denton moms oppose drilling ban.”
The fight was so contentious that McMullen was assigned police protection. She got death threats. She recalls, “In one of the Facebook posts, the guy was hoping that so many people would be so mad at us they would put us on a stick and burn us – and he would get to light the match.”
But the town had had enough. Even though the campaign was underfunded, there were hundreds of volunteers going door to door, hosting barbecues, even organizing a free concert in the town square.
The ban passed 59-41. In the end, McMullen and a small group of mostly women had beaten the oil and gas industry. “I would rather be underestimated than overestimated,” she says. “If people don’t think you are going to be a challenge to them, you can fly under the radar and do what you need to do.”
Similarities to Carbon County
Many elements of Cathy McMullen’s story should sound familiar to us along the Beartooth Front.
- In Carbon County, a small group of landowners from the Silvertip area have banded together to put forward a citizen initiated zoning petition. State law allows them to do this, they have met every requirement imposed by the County Attorney, and the County is currently building support for citizen initiated zoning into its growth plan, which has gone through extensive community process and is scheduled to be approved next month. As in Denton, they are local people petitioning for the rights given to them by state law.
- Like Denton, Carbon County is not a hotbed of liberal environmentalism. Denton is Tea Party country. Denton voted for Romney 65-33 in 2012; Carbon County voted for Romney 60-36. What is clearly true in Denton is also true in Carbon County: this isn’t a traditional partisan issue. Voters respect property rights, and they don’t want oil companies to be able to do whatever they want on private land without permission from surface owners. They care about their way of life, and don’t want it ruined by unregulated drilling.
- In both Denton and Carbon County, residents do not oppose all oil and gas drilling. The Denton ordinance banned fracking, not conventional drilling. The Silvertip Zone wouldn’t ban drilling, but would set the conditions under which drilling should occur.
- Like Cathy McMullen, the Silvertip residents may be underestimated by local elected officials. In the video below, shot at the August 18 meeting in which Silvertip residents presented their zoning petition, listen to County Commissioner Doug Tucker at 50:16 in this video (transcription is mine, so please forgive and correct errors):
Tucker: “When you state farmers and ranchers, and I’ve followed your articles and stuff with Northern Plains Resource Council, I think that we need to identify first of all, there’s a difference between possibly the farmers and ranchers that you’re stating. When I think of a rancher in the Clark Fork Valley, I think of the large scale ones: the Herdons, the Petersons, the Hergenriders, versus the smaller ones. I’m not saying they should be separated, but I know that when you talk about farmers and ranchers, and I’ve read many of your articles Deb, that state ‘all the farmers and ranchers over there,’ yet when I go over and speak with the farmers and ranchers that I’m thinking in my mind the farmers and ranchers are the ones that are doing most of the ag farming, they’re not on board with what the Northern Plains Resource Council is proposing. So I think there’s a little bit of a difference because when I look at these people here, I know the Nashes have a small operation there, I’m very aware of that, but I’m also noticing, I mean, I don’t know everybody here obviously, but, as far as the farming and ranching community, I don’t see the Hoskins here. I know that somebody spoke on behalf of them, but they’re large scale farmers. Herdons, large scale farmers, Petersons, Aisenbreys…”
The message is clear — even though the farmers and ranchers who have petitioned to form the Silvertip Zone have complied with the legal requirements for zone size, and percentage of owners signing, in Tucker’s mind this group is less relevant than larger ranchers. The smaller property owners somehow are less important.
The beauty of a citizen initiated zone is that it affects only the landowners in the zoned area. It is a way for individuals to protect their property rights, and it doesn’t keep others from exercising their rights as they see fit. The farmers and ranchers in the Silvertip Zone have complied with the legal requirements for forming a citizen initiated zone, and have done so in accordance with the County Growth Plan.
The lesson of Denton should not be lost on the Carbon County Commissioners. They can support their constituents who are acting within the law to protect their property as they see fit, or they can ignore these Carbon County voters and cast their lot with Energy Corporation of America and their Super Lawyer Mike Dockery.
Like Cathy McMullen and the citizens of Denton, the Silvertip landowners are not going away. They should not be underestimated.
Statement of Cathy McMullen after Denton fracking ban passed.
Cathy McMullen interview, 12/1/2014: