Big Oil Has Spent Millions Trying to Defeat a California County's Ballot Measure

Oil companies have contributed $8 million to fight against Measure G, a ballot measure in San Luis Obispo County that would block the expansion of local oil operations.
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Pump jacks in Kern County.

If passed, a local California ballot initiative known as Measure G would ban fracking.

Voters in San Luis Obispo County will decide today the future of oil operations in their slice of the California coast. If passed, a local ballot initiative known as Measure G would ban hydraulic fracturing and the development of any new oil wells and infrastructure in the unincorporated areas of the county.

This, of course, has not sat well with oil industry representatives and their cohort. Opponents of the measure, which includes the oil industry, raised some $8 million to fight the initiative—nearly 35 times what its supporters were able to raise.

"I feel a little overwhelmed with the power of their propaganda," says Charles Varni, co-founder of the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, the grassroots group behind the ballot measure. "There was no place you could go without being inundated with 'No on G' stuff."

If the measure passes today, it would effectively block a proposal to add hundreds of new wells to the Price Canyon oil field—an expansion that has been on hold for years for economic reasons, according to Sentinel Peak Resources California, LLC, a Denver-based oil company that owns the lease on the field. There are currently at least 165 oil wells in operation in the oil field, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Under Measure G, existing oil operations in San Luis Obispo County, which accounts for less than half of a percent of production in California, would be allowed to continue. But industry executives say the measure's language is so broad it would constrain maintenance and operation of existing wells. As Christine Halley, a spokeswoman for Sentinel Peak, wrote in a statement to Pacific Standard earlier this year:

Existing wells require ongoing and necessary repairs, improvements, and upgrades that go beyond even routine maintenance. Banning such activities and critical parts of production means that existing oil and gas production will ultimately be shut down—as the Initiative itself concedes—resulting in the loss of more than 200 skilled, good paying jobs directly related to oil and gas production.

Varni says the industry is cherry-picking language from the measure and ignoring a provision that grandfathers in existing wells to mislead voters. "Do your maintenance to keep your wells operating efficiently, cleanly, safely," he says; it's only new oil wells that Varni and his supporters want to block.

Of course, even if Measure G passes, it's still likely to go to court. Monterey County passed a similar measure banning fracking in 2016, but a trial court ruled that state law preempted local regulations. The measure is still on hold while the case is under appeal.

Should the measure fail, Varni says his group will continue their battle, "which is to challenge the expansion of any fossil fuel infrastructure in San Luis Obispo, to protect our groundwater, to do what we can to enhance the transition to a clean energy economy, and to do what we can to address global climate change on a local level."

But Varni is hopeful that the large number of undecided voters the coalition encountered while canvassing will turn out in their favor by the end of the day, when he'll be watching the returns come in from the Libertine brew pub in downtown San Luis Obispo with the measure's supporters. "I've thought over the last few weeks that because that undecided group stays relatively large, even in the onslaught of propaganda from 'No on G,' that that bodes well for us, " Varni says. "If people are still holding off, maybe they'll swing our way." 

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