Did he or didn’t he?

I’ve had more than one reader ask me to check out whether Texas oil and gas powerhouse attorney Shannon Ratliff wrote House Bill 40.

I put that task on my to-do list for this Sunday’s piece, a thorough question-and-answer on HB 40. Reaction from various attorneys and others who watch challenges to municipal authority call HB 40 everything from legislative overreach and a really bad law, to a reasonable compromise.

If you replay the testimony from the March 23 House Energy Resources Committee, about an hour in (the entire bill’s history is here), Ratliff is on the panel and fielding many questions from state representatives about the bill. It’s not hard to see why some people would come to the conclusion that Ratliff wrote the bill.

Ratliff: The fact of the matter is, we attempted in this bill, to connect it with a well established principal in oil & gas law and that is the reasonable and prudent operator rule.

Ratliff: What we’ve tried to do, is put some standards in place to deal with the general statement about it’s health, safety and welfare. And what we’ve done there, is we’ve taken activities that cities have typically engaged in such as setbacks for all kinds of activities …

Rep. Tom Craddick (to Ratliff): What about the legal aspect in this, the lawsuits? I mean, obviously no one seems to know—you may know because you wrote it—but no one seems to know what commercially reasonable is…

The two then share a joke about how the new definition of “commercially reasonable” would put attorneys in great demand. (Yet another descriptor I’ve read for HB 40, an attorney’s right-to-work bill.)

Loyal readers of Texas Monthly may remember a 2009 piece by Mimi Schwarz that detailed a long and storied battle between ExxonMobil and the prominent O’Connor family of South Texas.

It was in that story we learned of Ratliff’s impeccable credentials as an attorney and as one of the state’s power brokers; how his success before the Texas Supreme Court earned him the nickname “the Dark Knight of Oil and Gas law.”

I called him and asked him today if he wrote HB 40. He acknowledged the joke from the hearing, but denied writing HB 40.

Ratliff said State Rep. Drew Darby wrote it.

Revisiting term limits

Term limits for Denton City Council members have been in the city’s charter since the 1980s. In 2008, some voters disagreed with the city attorney’s interpretation that council members should be allowed to vacate one kind of council seat, whether at-large or district-specific, and reset the clock on another kind of council seat. They filed suit to keep term limits at three terms, or six years.

An ad hoc committee proposed a set of charter amendments that were, ultimately, looser than the original three-term limit and codified the interpretation. Voters approved the propositions in 2009.

Here’s how it rolled, according to a news report by Lowell Brown we published on Nov. 4, 2009:

Proposition 1 keeps the existing limit of three consecutive two-year terms and applies the limit separately to each of the council’s seven seats. It essentially codifies the city’s longtime practice of not counting past years of service against council members who switch seats or take a break in service. The proposition was designed to settle a debate over whether Denton term limits applied per seat or across all seats. Past years of service don’t count against council members who run for a different seat, including mayor, or sit out a term.

Under the new amendment, residents will be limited to 12 consecutive years of council service. The amendment includes no limit on the number of terms someone could serve in a lifetime. That means a council member could serve up to 12 years in a row by switching seats, sit out a year and then run again.

Proposition 2, which says council members representing the city’s four geographical districts must remain living in their district throughout their term in office. The charter previously didn’t prevent council members from staying in a seat after moving out of the district in which they were elected.

Proposition 3, which says vacancies in the mayor’s seat will be filled by special elections. Before, the mayor pro tem would have completed a mayor’s unexpired term.

Proposition 4, which makes clear that the council can’t interfere with the personnel decisions of any of its four appointees. The charter already prevented council members from interfering with the city manager’s personnel decisions, but the restriction didn’t extend to the city attorney, city auditor and municipal court judge.

Denton street width and bike lane rules

In “Insight,” on page 2 of the Sunday paper, March 29, we explored the question of what rules of the road bicyclists must to follow. Here it is again:

The Texas Transportation Code makes bicyclists subject to the same “duties of the road” that apply to drivers, such as observing stop signs and yielding right of way. 

Bicyclists must use hand signals to signal their intent to stop, turn left or turn right. Every bicycle must have a brake, and when riding at night, bicyclists must use a headlamp that emits white light visible at 500 feet. On the rear of the bicycle, they must also use either a red reflector visible at 300 feet or a red lamp visible at 500 feet. 

In addition, the code dictates that when moving slower than traffic, bicyclists should ride to the right edge of the roadway, not the shoulder or gutter — which, by definition, is not the roadway. 

Where a road is too narrow to safely share with a vehicle (including those less than 14 feet wide), Denton allows bicyclists to ride in the middle of the lane. [emphasis added] Bicyclists may ride two abreast on a multi-lane roadway, but they may not impede the normal and reasonable flow of traffic when doing so.

Carry your driver’s license or state identification with you when you ride. Bicyclists can be cited when they violate the rules of the road. Denton police wrote 26 citations to cyclists in the past 12 months, most for riding without proper headlamps or rear lighting. Bicyclists also got tickets for running stop signs and for riding on a sidewalk, the wrong side of the street or the wrong way along a one-way street. 

At the time I was gathering information, I was hoping to get the answer to how many Denton streets were 14 feet, or less, across. It seemed a key piece of information to know, as a driver, how often you might expect to see a bicyclist in the middle of the lane because the street is too narrow.

Turns out, it’s a lot. The answer came recently from the city’s new bicycle and pedestrian coordinator: “Most of the streets in Denton are 14 feet or less. There are very few that are 16 feet.”

Keep that important fact in mind when you are driving the city’s narrow streets, Denton.

The Texas Republic in London

A reader who enjoyed today’s story about lesser known heroes in Texas’ fight for independence stopped by, thinking we might enjoy seeing this image from his recent trip to London.

We didn’t have to work very hard to find references online to the days of the Texas Republic and its efforts to be recognized in the world order.

Here’s a blog reference with a photo that shows the plaque in better context along with a colorful description of the room they rented for the republic’s Secretary of State.

Hudspeth to wait until 2017

Gerard Hudspeth just called us to say he is going to wait until 2017 to run for District 1.

Gerard Hudspeth

Council member Kevin Roden faced no opposition for his re-election bid two years ago and has announced that he intends to run for re-election this year for his third, and final, term.

Hudspeth said he plans on spending more time observing council meetings in the coming months and work on his service projects as well.

“We’re going to build some coalitions,” Hudspeth said.

His father, Willie Hudspeth and the local chapter of the NAACP, has been working closely with Denton LULAC and the Denton Police Department in recent weeks. Gerard Hudspeth participated in the initial summit meeting between civil rights leaders and law enforcement that called for better communication between Denton youth and the police.

You can see our stories about that promising initiative here and here.

Semi-annual campaign finance reports

Here are the semi-annual campaign finance reports for the specific-purpose committees that raised and spent money on the proposition elections this November.

Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy did not file an affidavit of dissolution. But the other three groups did, which closes the books on their campaigns.

Remember, these reports cover only the final week of the campaign. For earlier reports, go here and here.

For the proposition to ban hydraulic fracturing in the city:

DTSE SemiAnnual


For the proposition to make Denton wet:


For the four propositions totaling $98.2 million for public improvements:


Community briefing on ordinance revisions

The latest revisions to the gas well development ordinance should be released Friday afternoon, when Tuesday’s agenda packet is posted on the city’s website.

I plan on reading the materials and writing a weekend paper to help our readers know what’s coming. The City Council’s work session Tuesday was less of a discussion of “what” more than it was a discussion of “how” the public hearing will go on Tuesday.

However, city officials are planning a briefing on the changes Monday. Council member John Ryan typically holds “town hall” style meeting once a month — usually at the North Branch Library — to give residents a chance to get more in-depth information about a current issue or share a concern. Ryan has moved this month’s meeting to City Hall and will get help from Darren Groth, head of the city’s gas well inspection division, with a presentation on the changes.

Residents will be able to ask questions of either the elected officials or city staff present at the briefing, in order to better prepare for Tuesday’s public hearing.

More to come as I get it.

Scientists: “rapid and thorough” response needed to fracking

A group of doctors and scientists reviewed a number of recent studies of hydraulic fracturing against what is known about reproductive health and identified increased health risks for infants, children and adults.

The peer-reviewed literature review, “Development and reproductive effects of chemicals associated with unconventional oil and natural gas operations,” was published today in the quarterly scientific journal, Reviews of Environmental Health. The authors, Ellen Webb, Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, Amanda Cheng, Christopher D. Kassotis, Victoria Balise and Susan C. Nagel, concluded there was a compelling need to better understand the consequences of fracking “through rapid and thorough further health research.”

The group studied what was known about unconventional oil and gas development, including the facts that more than 15 million Americans live within one mile of such operations. Shale drilling and fracking involves the use of chemicals with known risks to the human reproductive system, including volatile organic compounds (namely, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene and formaldehyde) and heavy metals.

Some of the increased risks the group identified in their review of the scientific literature including effects on the fertility of both men and women, effects on fetal development and birth defects.

In an interview, Bushkin-Bedient said the group found the work by two other researchers, veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and scientist Robert Oswald, particularly informative. Bamberger and Oswald which identified livestock near frack sites as sentinels to potential health risks and published their research in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy in 2012.

Nagel said both additional laboratory experiments and large-scale epidemiological studies were needed to better understand the risks.

Denton answers lawsuits

Just back from the Denton County courthouse to get a copy of the city’s answer to the Texas Oil and Gas Association lawsuit against the city’s new ban on hydraulic fracturing. City staff tell me a copy of the answer to the General Land Office’s lawsuit will be in my in-box shortly.

You can see it’s fairly simple, just two pages to say that the “entire field” of regulations from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Railroad Commission don’t meet the requirement of fair notice.

Further, the city offers the defense that the citizen’s initiative is not subject to preemption because of the public nuisance fracking brings.

Update: Here’s the answer to the state’s lawsuit. The city has asked for a change of venue.

More details in tomorrow’s newspaper.

City’s position paper on “vested rights”

During the council’s work session last week, several members referred to a Vested Rights Position and White Paper.

I wrote the story as best I could, not knowing the details of what was in the paper. The paper was not included in the agenda back-up online. I finally received a copy late Friday.

But it has been well known that many of the troubles the city has had enforcing its new oil and gas development ordinance can be traced to the Harper Park Two decision.

The position paper argues against stretching the Texas Supreme Courts’ interpretation of a development project’s vested rights from Harper Park Two to an oil and gas development project, asserting that it likely does not reflect the intent of the Texas Legislature.

What is the project? Is it only that pad site identified on the original plat? Is it one well, or two wells, or five wells? Is the project the complete exhaustion of the mineral stores of the mineral lease, no matter the necessity of burdening the surface estate with additional wells and gas infrastructure? In an urban environment with underlying gas plays, the answer to these questions determines the health and safety and the quality of life of a municipality’s citizens.