In June 2020, in a North Texas city council chamber, the owner of small a day care center spoke out against French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies. The company had proposed a gas-drilling project behind her facility. It was a David vs. Goliath moment, and day care center owner Wanda Vincent won. The Arlington City Council voted to deny the energy company’s bid to drill.
But things changed this week after the city voted again on the proposal, and TotalEnergies won its bid in a 5-4 vote.
So, what changed? Elizabeth Shogren has been following this story for the investigative podcast “Reveal.” She tells Texas Standard that back in 2020, the Arlington City Council decision was seen as a moment of social and racial reckoning because Vincent is Black and the children at her facility are primarily Black and Latino.
But Shogren says city rules meant that decision wasn’t permanent. Listen to the interview with Shogren in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Let’s begin by talking about the company TotalEnergies, based in France. How much business do they do in Texas?
Elizabeth Shogren: Total does a lot of business in Texas in what’s called the Barnett Shale. That’s basically the natural gas field that’s underneath the Dallas-Fort Worth region, and they drill there. You might remember a company called Chesapeake Total bought Chesapeake’s wells.
I want to get to this week’s city council meeting. It’s my understanding that some neighbors didn’t even know there was an upcoming vote – a sort of reconsideration of the decision not to permit drilling there at that site.
That’s right. To lots of people, the fact that there was drilling going on in this area at all, or could be, was completely a surprise. Here is Rosario Tejada at the city council meeting:
“I just learned about this. Were it not from Ms. Wanda and the “Reveal” article, I wouldn’t have known, and it terrifies me. It really, honestly does.”
Now I want to get back to a central theme here, because Total was denied their bid to drill at that site in 2020. How was the company able to bid again?
City rules give companies the right to come back and bid again. But the fact the Total was trying again was kind of remarkable because of just how emotional it was a year ago when they were denied. This was all wrapped up with the civil rights uprising that was going on in our country at that time. And Wanda Vincent is Black. She’s the owner of the day care; it’s called Mother’s Heart. And she was the emotional heart of that opposition in 2020. She was caught off guard when Total came back again. She had thought she’d won. She was shocked to know that they could try again. And this is what she said in this week’s meeting:
“And I’m here to let you know that we do care about our children, we care about our neighborhood, we care about our schools.”
So how do you explain what happened? I mean, last year, the city of Arlington said no. This time around, they approved the drilling. What accounts for that?
Well, there was a big change in the composition of the council. There was an election, there’s a new mayor, there are new members of the city council, and so Total knew they were going to face a different board of deciders. And that’s part of why I’m sure why they came back to try again.
And another thing is playing a role in Texas: there is a law that says that cities have minimal power to regulate drilling in their own area. It’s called House Bill 40. And so, many of the members of the city council who did vote for this drilling, including the mayor, they said that their hands are tied because of this state law and that Total would sue them if they said no. And they said that that would cost the city a lot of money and they’d lose anyway in court. So that played a role in all of this.
But not all members of the city council were convinced by that. Several of them gave impassioned speeches about their opposition. Here’s council member [Raul] Gonzalez, who said his own son has asthma that only returned when he returned to Arlington.
“I feel like I have a responsibility when I took the oath not only to uphold the Constitution and the state law, but I also have the responsibility to care about the safety and the health of every citizen in the city.“
What happens now? Is there room for some kind of appeal, or activists mounting some kind of challenge, or what are you hearing?
The opponents I’ve spoken to are really incensed about this, that the city council could flip-flop in this way and put these children at risk. And so they’re looking for every possibility there might be. They’re trying to raise money for legal defense. They’re trying to see if there is some way to oppose this in the courts. And of course, they’re hoping that winds change.
They’re kind of shocked that this enormous company would come back and continue to drill in their urban area. I think it’s important to tell your listeners that it’s very unusual in our country to have so much drilling going on in such a tight urban area. There is a lot of drilling in our country, but there’s not a lot that goes on in such a concentrated area, and in this case, a concentrated area where a lot of the people who are affected are people of color.
Editor’s note: Arlington City Council Member Raul Gonzalez was incorrectly named as “Juan” when this story first aired. We regret this error.