How the Fight to Ban Fracking Turned Partisan

by Leslie Layton

It cost the oil-and-gas industry some pocket change (about $100 grand) to accomplish its mission in Butte County. If I had a leaked memo, the mission might have been described this way: Stop cold the county’s ordinance to ban fracking, reframe their debate.

On Feb. 10, the Board of Supervisors rejected a 13-page ordinance to ban fracking written by Butte County attorneys who had conducted research over a period of months. Chair Doug Teeter and supervisors Steve Lambert and Bill Connelly said they had changed their position on the issue — but not because of “threats” as had been suggested.

What was even more remarkable was the partisan pitch the debate had acquired. The fracktivists who have been on an almost two-year quest to achieve a local ban were sometimes treated as a fringe group or a cog in a larger, more ominous movement. Or as citizens seeking a political statement on a national issue of no consequence to Butte County.

When the board voted April 8 to draft an ordinance that would ban fracking, it seemed the 4-1 vote would place Butte County at the vanguard of a statewide, grass-roots movement. The supervisors reasoned (with the exception of Larry Wahl, the supe who consistently opposed a ban) that an ordinance would ensure that a frack job would never endanger the region’s groundwater or threaten the county’s agricultural character.

Butte County doesn’t have oil, but it has small natural-gas deposits and 32 wells that are either active or idle. Its geology isn’t amenable to horizontal drilling, the technique that has given hydraulic-fracturing projects their scale in other parts of the country. But small-scale fracking has been underway in neighboring counties, and county staff recommended on Feb. 10 adoption of the ordinance.

Instead, the trio of supervisors withdrew their support, moving the board toward a decision that the CN&R called “gutless,” and the Enterprise-Record said would “fail the citizenry” and ensure that voters would pass a weaker ordinance that will be on the ballot in June 2016. Supervisor Maureen Kirk became the lone board member in favor of moving ahead with a ban. Lambert, who made the motion in April to draft an ordinance, said he had worried about a lawsuit by some “big, scary corporation” to challenge what he now viewed as a symbolic gesture.

Lambert was reluctant to give environmentalists a victory even if he agreed with them in principle. “This one is very hard for me,” Lambert said at the Feb. 10 meeting. “I truly don’t like fracking, but I have problems with being part of a bigger movement. I don’t want to be the trendsetter. My concern is we’re doing this for the wrong reasons, we’re trying to start this whole freedom-fighter thing.”

How did the quest by a diverse group of citizens who make up Frack-Free Butte County become a “freedom-fighter thing”?

It took $116,238 — the amount that was spent in Butte County after the April vote, according to Secretary of State campaign-disclosure forms — and some help from the county’s conservative political machine to polarize the debate and roust members of the board. It probably wasn’t any single thing: Not the yard signs that sprang up or the robocalls to conservative voters; Not the citizens who argued in favor of private-property rights; Not just the interventions by large out-of-town law firms.

Given that at least two of the supervisors were concerned about legal trouble, you could infer, though, that the industry-funded political action committee (PAC), Californians for Energy Independence, was successful. The campaign-disclosure reports show the PAC was receiving millions of dollars in contributions from companies like Chevron, Vaquero Energy and Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas to fight local movements in California to restrict fracking.

(Though an ordinance to ban fracking that was on the November ballot in Santa Barbara County failed, bans have been imposed in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Mendocino counties.)

Teeter said because fracking isn’t “imminent” in Butte County, he now viewed the ordinance as a “political statement.” Later, he told me that he doesn’t want to act when the state hasn’t yet completed an independent study that’s underway, and he wants to see how San Benito County’s fracking ban withstands legal challenges.

Dave Garcia, a Sierra Club activist who helped launch the local anti-fracking movement, believes that if natural gas prices increase enough, fracking will be attempted here. “Now’s the time to put regulations in,” Garcia said, “when we don’t have large corporations investing in our county. Once they’re invested we’ll never get them out.”

Between May and October, Butte County got a sense of what it means to confront the state’s most powerful corporate lobby. In May, a mailer opposing the ban appeared around Butte County, funded by the PAC and signed by Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber).

During the next two months, the PAC funneled a total of $47,500 to a pair of local Republican strategists as opposition to a ban mounted at public hearings. Then came what the fractivists called “The Suits.” Two corporate law firms became players in the Butte County debate, both of which earned tens of thousands of dollars last year working for Californians for Energy Independence opposing bans in Santa Barbara, San Benito and other counties.

The San Rafael firm Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni challenged Frack-Free Butte County’s ballot initiative on grounds that it had technical defects, but a judge dismissed the challenge. The Los Angeles law firm Latham & Watkins sent a letter to the county in October stating that Butte’s ordinance to ban fracking is illegal under state law.

Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert believes the ordinance his staff drafted will stand up in court, but the ordinance drafted by citizens as a ballot referendum may not. The citizens’ ordinance that will appear on the June 2016 ballot, he said, is “flawed.”

The Butte County ban movement has always been a grass-roots, underfunded effort. It began in summer 2013 with a group called Citizens Action Network that includes retirees, professionals, college students and long-time environmental activists. The Frack-Free Butte County organization emerged to gather signatures for a ballot initiative.

“That effort is what brought the Board of Supervisors to want to do something on their own,” noted Marty Dunlap, an attorney who volunteers with a water-advocacy group. “We thought this was a way to work with county supervisors to put protections in for our most valuable resource, groundwater. It didn’t seem like it was going to be that big a deal.”

San Benito County anti-fracking activists managed to win voter approval in November for a ban ordinance that had been drafted by a San Francisco law firm. But it was a very big deal, said Andy Hsia-Coron, a founder of the anti-fracking group San Benito Rising.

Hsia-Coron said that the oil-and-gas industry, with the help of Republican groups, outspent his side by 14-1 and tried to make the ban proponents look like extremists. “We kept saying, ‘We don’t look like who you say we are,'” Hsia-Coron told me by telephone. “Their money became ineffective.”

At the Feb. 10 meeting, Lambert, who farms in this region, said sectors of his industry had been “constantly under fire by extremes.”

“My ag friends agree with me,” Lambert continued. “They don’t like fracking either, but have the same concerns with being part of a bigger movement.”

Connelly said he was uncomfortable with the larger anti-fracking movement and concerned about energy independence. Then came this sweeping statement: “The less we rely on crazy people overseas that burn pilots and behead people, the better off the country is.”

Kirk moved to adopt the county’s ordinance, but her motion died for lack of a second as supervisors discussed alternatives, like a ban on waste disposal and more well-drilling use-permit conditions.

A few days after the meeting, I spoke with Teeter by telephone and he predicted that larger amounts of industry money will flow into the county prior to the June 2016 referendum on fracking. And if the board bans fracking, he believes that PAC money could fund candidates who would promise to overturn the ordinance. “Do we really want one-issue candidates?” Teeter said. “A ban would be a lot stronger if citizens imposed it.”

But Supervisor Kirk has pointed out that the citizens’ ordinance will be more difficult to defend in court. Teeter says the activists could undertake a new campaign to place the ordinance drafted by county staff on the November 2016 ballot.

The steering committee for Frack-Free Butte County will meet Wednesday to discuss a strategy, but not everyone seems eager to start anew. They know what it means to collect 10,000 signatures without paid signature-gatherers, to face legal challenges from corporate law firms without legal assistance, to hold bake sales and wine-tastings to pay campaign costs.

Garcia balked at Teeter’s suggestion. “They fumbled the ball,” Garcia said of the supervisors. “Now they want us to do their work for them?”

Leslie Layton is a freelance writer who has covered fracking and other issues. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @ChicoSolNews

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