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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas moved Monday to ban its own cities from imposing prohibitions on hydraulic fracturing and other potentially environmentally harmful oil and natural gas drilling activities within their boundaries — a major victory for industry groups and top conservatives who have decried rampant local "overregulation."
Lawmakers in America's largest oil-producing state scrambled to limit local energy exploration prohibitions after Denton, a university town near Dallas, passed an ordinance in November against hydraulic fracturing or fracking, attempting to keep encroaching drilling bonanzas outside their community.
Fracking is the practice of blasting huge volumes of water and chemicals underground to release tight deposits of oil and gas. Denton voters' opposition was driven by recurring small earthquakes and safety worries from gas wells that have become ubiquitous near urban area during the energy boom of the last few years.
But energy lobbyists argued that local regulations shouldn't trump property rights and effectively choke off natural gas drilling underground.
The measure by San Angelo Republican Rep. Drew Darby, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, allows local communities to regulate things above ground such as noise, traffic and lighting associated with fracking, drilling and other oil and gas activities.
But it forbids limits on any drilling or activity below the surface, except for some regulations, such as bans on exploration on Sundays, that are already in place. Any limits imposed by communities would have to be "commercially reasonable," which critics say allows the energy industry wide sway.
Texas got a taste of the religious objections issue that drew strong criticism elsewhere, with many church leaders imploring state lawmakers to protect religious freedoms in the name of tolerance but others taking the opportunity to openly decry gay marriage.
Top Republicans in the Texas Legislature have made a late attempt to revive a bill excusing clergy from presiding over marriages that violate their beliefs. The measure isn't particularly divisive, even winning endorsements from civil liberty groups that say it largely restates existing law, and that they agree churches should be allowed to set their own religious policies.
But Sen. Craig Estes' proposal follows arguments over gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as broader religious objections bills in Indiana and Arkansas that made national headlines after opponents said they would sanction discrimination against gay people.
The Senate voted to scrap the state's high school steroids testing program after more than 60,000 tests caught just a handful of cheaters since 2007.
Texas has spent more than $10 million since launching the program. But the high cost, extremely low rate of catching steroids users and criticism of testing methods has prompted lawmakers to abandon an effort once praised as a leader for the country.
The bill now goes to the House for consideration before the June 1 end of session. Lawmakers are also separately looking to strip out all funding for the program.
If Texas dumps its program, New Jersey and Illinois will have the only statewide high school steroids testing programs in the U.S.
WATCHING THE MILITARY
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott pushed back Monday against criticism of him asking the State Guard to monitor a U.S. military training exercise that some believe is a government conspiracy to launch a hostile takeover of Texas.
Fears about the upcoming, multiple-state "Jade Helm 15" war simulation being a preamble to martial law have circulated on social media and conservative websites for months. After a packed town hall meeting about the training exercise last week in rural Bastrop County, Abbott wrote to the State Guard and said measures would be in place to make sure civil liberties are not infringed upon.
That set off some of the sharpest criticism Abbott has faced since taking office in January, including one former Republican state legislator accusing the new governor of "pandering to idiots."
"There was, frankly, an overreaction to the simple fact that someone has to be in charge with gathering and disseminating information," Abbott said. "We stepped in to play that role, which is a role to be applauded."
After working late the previous evening, the House is adjourned until 10 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate convenes at 8:30 a.m. to handle local bills, then will tackle more contentious business later in the morning.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"We justified, in this country, a lot of things based on religion — including we justified people of different races not being allowed to get married." — Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on concerns over the Senate bill to protect religious liberty.