Under the guise of an anti-fracking initiative, environmental groups in two California counties have sneaked into a ballot measure language that would impose sweeping restrictions on the entire energy sector, banning even conventional oil- and gas-production methods that do not involve fracking and have been safely used for decades.
The ballot measures in Santa Barbara and San Benito Counties have enjoyed support from bigger environmental groups, including 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Food and Water Watch, which have marketed the initiatives as a decision about outlawing fracking.
But “hydraulic fracturing is not used, planned, or proposed in our community,” says Kristina Chavez Wyatt, communications director for San Benito’s “No on Measure J” campaign. “So we feel it’s been used as a ploy or a scare tactic to utilize fear and get people to vote on a measure that would essentially eliminate oil and gas exploration in our county. . . . It would essentially choke out their operation.”
San Benito is home to a modest 26 active wells. Santa Barbara, an oil-producing county since 1886, today hosts 1,167 active wells, none of which involve fracking, and its oil industry paid $16 million in local property taxes last year.
But if the measures succeed, the economic cost will be more than just lost jobs and business, says Jim Byrne, the communications director for Santa Barbara’s “No on Measure P” campaign.
“There will be a Pandora’s box of litigation that will be fired down on the county,” Byrne says, adding that suits will claim the moratorium violates property and mineral rights and may also be an unconstitutional taking. “There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits brought on. Hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars could be hit on the county, and the county has no insurance for this.”
Though there are no good estimates for the potential litigation expenses for Santa Barbara or San Benito, a fracking moratorium in Boulder County, Colo., stands to cost taxpayers around $1 billion, according to a study published in June by Netherland, Sewell & Associates, an international petroleum-engineering firm.
The two ballot-measure campaigns represent a big shift in environmental strategy in California, pivoting from a state-level focus to a more localized effort.
“[Environmental groups] attempt to pass local ordinances as a way to push for a statewide ban, which has already failed in the legislature,” says Sabrina Lockhart, the communications director for Californians for Energy Independence. “Their end goal is to stop oil production. They’re trying to play upon people’s fears, and it will hurt the state economically and also threaten our energy independence.”
The county-level California effort is modeled on environmental groups’ earlier successes in New York, where they have campaigned hard and succeeded in passing fracking bans and moratoria. Today, more than 200 New York communities have adopted some sort of prohibition against fracking.
Environmental groups are replicating that strategy in Colorado, which has passed five local-level fracking bans or moratoria since 2012. Now, in California, they are testing whether they can gain greater restrictions on oil and gas by linking conventional energy extraction with the more controversial fracking.
Already, Mendocino County has proposed a slightly watered-down version of the San Benito and Santa Barbara ballot measures. Meanwhile, Butte County is preparing to bring the same sort of initiative before voters in 2016. And last spring, the L.A. Times reported that more than 60 other communities are also considering bans or moratoria.
These efforts overlook that California already has some of the most rigorous anti-fracking restrictions in the nation, Lockhart says. Last year, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 4, which, among other requirements, compels energy companies to disclose all chemicals used in fracking and conduct well-integrity and water-quality tests before, during, and after the fracturing process and mandates a statewide environmental-impact report.
Efforts to limit energy production in California carry their own risks, Lockhart says. Already the state consumes all the oil and gas it produces, and it continues to rely on energy brought in from other states and countries. “There are special interests looking to stop domestic oil production that will result in more oil consumption produced under lesser standards,” she says.
Though the fate of the two ballot measures won’t be determined for two weeks, it’s already clear that environmental groups nationwide will be closely watching the outcomes in San Benito and Santa Barbara. If they can succeed in imposing ambitious restrictions on the energy industry by exploiting voters’ knee-jerk discomfort with fracking, expect to see similar initiatives mounted soon in the rest of California and beyond.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.