by Leslie Layton
The grass-roots campaign to ban fracking in Butte County via ballot initiative came to a crashing halt with a July 29 vote by the Board of Supervisors. The supervisors voted, 4-1, in favor of a 30-day study of the initiative rather than to place it on the Nov. 4 ballot.
The board also said it would proceed with work on an ordinance county attorneys are writing that would also ban fracking and that would likely include more detail and definition of terms. That’s been underway since the board’s April 8 meeting, when supervisors voted 4-1 in favor of a county-wide fracking ban.
This week’s vote came after two hours of unusually contentious debate between Frack-Free Butte County campaign supporters and other county residents, most of who had never before been heard publicly on the matter. Some members of the emerging opposition group said they’re concerned the Frack-Free ordinance would trample on property rights, prevent the creation of new jobs or result in costly litigation.
Board Chair Doug Teeter and supervisors Bill Connelly, Steve Lambert and Larry Wahl voted to take the draft ordinance prepared by citizens under study for 30 days, which means that it will probably appear on the 2016 General Election ballot — two years after Frack-Free Butte County’s target date.
Supervisor Maureen Kirk voted against that motion; the initiative deserves movement with time to land on the coming election ballot, in her view. The petition got more than the 7,605 required signatures with the “blood, sweat and tears” of volunteers, Kirk said.
It’s been a dramatic and daunting journey for anti-fracking activists, who just last week overcame a legal challenge, and on Monday evening, learned that Butte County Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs had validated 7,975 petition signatures.
The Tuesday vote was bitterly disappointing to activists who have been working to ban fracking by ballot initiative for more than a year, who wrote a draft ordinance with the help of local attorneys and who conducted a campaign involving hundreds of volunteers. “Nobody asked for a study until this eleventh hour. It’s a delay tactic,” Frack-Free Butte County Treasurer Joni Stellar said during a break in the meeting.
An ordinance written by the county won’t be as durable as would be an ordinance born from a ballot initiative; the latter can be overturned only by another initiative drive. But some activists nevertheless tried to focus on what Butte Environmental Council’s (BEC) Robyn DiFalco called the “silver lining” — the promise that the board will approve a comprehensive ordinance of its own.
“I believe in the public process, and if the outcome will result in good legislation, that’s the silver lining,” BEC Executive Director DiFalco said after the meeting.
The four supervisors seemed swayed in particular by the county’s attorney, Bruce Alpert, and by a lobbying effort on behalf of Wild Goose Storage, which operates an underground natural gas storage facility in Gridley.
Early in the meeting, Alpert said he had “grave concerns” about the citizen-drafted ordinance. “I see trouble ahead with the ordinance as it’s presently drafted,” he said.
Alpert said his office had been consulting with municipalities across the country — including the counties of Santa Barbara and San Benito where similar anti-fracking campaigns are underway — and is close to having its own “state-of-the-art” ordinance to ban the practice. He said his ordinance would address the problem of “takings” — the issue of whether the county would be infringing on the rights of property owners who might want to frack for gas on their land or otherwise exploit their mineral rights.
But some activists fear that an oil-and-gas-funded campaign could ultimately derail efforts to impose a local fracking ban; they’ve already gotten a taste of that fight with the legal challenge that was posed last month by a Marin County law firm.
“The oil and gas industries… spent $100,000 in this county before we even qualified our initiative or got close,” said anti-fracker Karen Duncanwood during the public hearing. “We traced this money back to a Houston oil firm…”.
“Our concern is the longer we wait the more difficult it’s going to be to pass something,” said Dave Garcia, a key figure in launching the local anti-fracking movement. Garcia said the supervisors are “getting a lot of pressure from the Republican Party, and it’s only going to get worse.”
Early Tuesday morning, some 10 people opposing the ballot initiative convened under a canopy erected outside the county office building where the meeting would be held. They carried signs championing private property rights and opposing the ban, but refused to identify themselves or comment. When this reporter approached a group of young people, an organizer quickly intervened, telling the students, “You’re not allowed to answer any questions.”
They pointed reporters to Robin Cook, a communications professional who previously worked for now-retired congressman Wally Herger. Cook said she decided to get involved when Butte County Superior Court Judge Robert Glusman last week broached the issue of “takings,” as it relates to the ordinance, during a court hearing.
“My ears pricked up,” Cook said. “My dad owns several farms in the area, and I wondered how it would affect him. We’re asking for the 30-day study. We just want good policy.”
During the hearing before supervisors, Cook was more explicit. “We have a capped well on our property,” Cook said, indicating that “takings” might affect her family. “You don’t want a big old mess of lawsuits. We need to study this to know if it’s bankruptcy language.”
Also concerned about language in the ordinance was Brian Hamman, an attorney representing Wild Goose, who sent the county a letter on May 5 and spoke at the public hearing Tuesday. The May letter says the ordinance might have “unintended consequences;” Hamman says it would affect Wild Goose operations even though no fracking is underway at the facility.
Wild Goose operates an injection well, though, that worries anti-fracker Garcia. The injection well is used for disposal of saltwater rather than fracking waste. But Garcia told supervisors that injection wells have been linked to increased seismic activity, and noted that the Wild Goose well is “within miles” of the Willow fault line.
Hamman told supervisors there’s a “bunch of misinformation” about his company. Later, he told ChicoSol: “I’m a little upset to get thrown under the bus with Big Oil. I consider myself a friend of the environment. I hope a good law [against fracking] does get put in place.”
Teeter was clearly worried about inadvertent harm to Wild Goose. “Wild Goose is one of our top [county] tax payees,” Teeter said, wondering aloud how passage of the citizens’ ordinance would affect Wild Goose property values.
Several board members said they want to ensure the ordinance addresses disposal wells in light of recent state action to shut down injection wells in the Central Valley because of a suspicion that oil and gas companies have pumped hazardous chemicals into drinking-water aquifers. Connelly voted for the 30-day study only after he was assured the board would move forward with an ordinance that would address that danger.
“I don’t want our abandoned wells to be used as dumping grounds,” Connelly said.
Citizens opposing the ballot initiative asked that the matter be studied, arguing that it was being rushed through. And the public hearing often diverged into an is-fracking-safe-or-not discussion.
Midway through the hearing, BEC’s DiFalco addressed the question at hand — what to do with the initiative. “It’s an imperfect process,” DiFalco said of ballot-initiative legislating. “But the California Constitution allows for the process. Let the citizens of Butte County vote. It’s their Constitutional right.”
After the meeting, she alluded to rumors that within the Republican Party, there’s a concerted effort to keep fracking off the November ballot because of a fear that it would attract voters to the polls who don’t adhere to a conservative agenda. DiFalco said she doesn’t believe the board vote reflects any such political motive. “But the forces that don’t want this on the ballot in November were effective,” she said.
Ultimately, Stellar said, the anti-fracking campaign has been a success. The board’s April vote to ban fracking was a direct result of the campaign, she said. “I’m disappointed, and hopeful the county will come through. We have educated a lot of people. We have literally made this an issue in the county.”