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Guest Blog: Why Local Control Matters

March 16, 2015

By Adam Briggle, Denton Drilling Awareness Group

Photo Credit (slider): Frack Free Denton

The Denton fracking ban has sparked an important discussion about the political authority of municipalities and the role of citizens’ initiatives in a democracy. This is often couched under the label of local control, a core value that state legislators are now hypocritically attacking.

Adam Briggle

One of their strategies is an appeal to the “rule of law.” In a nutshell, the argument is something like: “Local control is all well and good as far as it goes. But it is not an absolute value. Taken too far it becomes mob rule. The Bill of Rights prevents majorities from stripping minorities of their civil liberties. Just because an ordinance is passed by a city or citizens’ initiative, doesn’t mean it can trump certain basic rights that are afforded all U.S. citizens.” Here’s one example of this argument.

No one will dispute the possibility that local control can be misused to violate Constitutional protections. But this argument doesn’t apply to Denton’s hydraulic fracturing ban. As we’ve maintained all along, the ban is legally sound and an example of American democracy at its most pure. We the People have exercised our most fundamental right to protect the health of our families and communities, and what we have done is no more a violation of civil rights than a local law preventing the sale of cigarettes to children or preventing the siting of a new liquor store next to a kindergarten.

Denton’s law is not depriving anyone of his or her property rights (or any civil liberty). It is simply a recognition that the rights of all citizens to safely enjoy their property and protect themselves and their children trumps the “right” to squeeze the maximum profit from mineral resources via a hazardous, uniquely invasive, and noxious well stimulation technique. Property rights come with the correlative duty to respect the property rights of others. In other words, your right to swing your fist ends when it hits my face.

Indeed, the rule of law argument actually favors the Denton ban, because it was the only remaining path in our free and democratic society to secure the basic rights of citizens put in harm’s way. Let us not forget how long and hard the people of Denton worked to draft a set of reasonable rules. Unfortunately, the industry refused to cooperate, and the people had no choice but to speak out for themselves. On November 4, bad neighbors got their comeuppance.

In reality, the rule of law argument is a sheepskin atop the wolf of corporate power. Sadly for all of us, the oil and gas industry owns the state legislature. They fund the campaigns of lawmakers and even regulators who are appointed to protect the health and safety of the citizens. As a result, they have put in place a legal system that prioritizes their profits over health, safety, community integrity, and welfare.

This is why local control is so vital in this context: municipalities are the only level of government concerned with protecting the people exposed to the harms of fracking. Rule of law is only as good as the laws that are ruling. With vested rights, non-disclosure of chemicals, non-reporting of emissions, the dominance of the mineral estate, lax enforcement, and much more, the state allows the industry to run roughshod over the people. Those appealing to the rule of law at the state level need to get busy making some better laws. In the meantime, local communities must continue to stand up for the rights of those neglected by the state or we will not only risk our health, but also lose the last venue in which we can take control of our own destiny. That’s not a new idea – it’s the vision that the Founding Fathers had when they embarked on the most successful experiment in the history of democracy.

Adam Briggle is Vice President of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which spearheaded the Frack Free Denton campaign. He is also an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Texas and author of the forthcoming book A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking with W.W. Norton.

Photo Credit (A. Briggle): Michael Leza