A County Planning Commission meeting last week over exemptions to Measure P made for a media blitz Monday, with camps on both sides of the proposed drilling ban accusing the other of lying about how the proposed drilling ban could affect the county. From the steps of the county courthouse, blue-clad supporters reiterated their assertions that only new fracking, acidizing, and cyclic-steaming projects — not existing operations — would feel the effects. Shortly after, flanked by green yard signs and T-shirts at their upper State Street headquarters, a smaller “No” team repeated fears about what the ban would mean for their near- and long-term futures and for the entities that would no longer reap the oil industry’s financial benefits.
The final framework for handling claims of vested rights and takings will be up to the Board of Supervisors next month, but the Planning Commission voted in favor of protocols suggested by the Planning Department over the summer. Barring any changes they make themselves, the supervisors would have the ultimate authority over takings cases, which oil companies would have to submit in tandem with applications for development projects; the commission suggested it have the first crack at those claims. Vested-rights cases — which have drawn the most allegations of lie-spewing from both sides — would be under the planning director’s purview but appealable to the commission and board. Industry officials have stated the protocols — which they said presuppose the measure’s passage on November 4 — do nothing to reassure them their current wells won’t get shut down and thus do nothing to stop them from suing the county on November 5.
At a supervisors meeting in July, County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni said Measure P’s possible victory has seen his office preparing for the county’s largest litigation exposure but that the protocols could stanch some lawsuits. Last week, Deputy County Counsel Bill Dillon looked to further offset an onslaught, saying companies that feel secure in their operations’ vested rights — meaning significant work with a permit or work undertaken prior to a zoning restriction — wouldn’t be forced to go through the county and could continue operating. County planners piggybacked on that, saying projects would only be investigated if complaints were made.
But oil companies’ eyebrows have peaked because the phrase “existing operations” isn’t found in the measure’s exemptions section; lawyers for the “Yes” side have explained that “vested rights” is the legalese equivalent. Because of that word choice, industry representatives maintain, obtaining permits for pre-P wells in the future could prove impossible; “Yes” attorneys reply that as long as the permit is for a vested activity previously allowed, the well can move forward. How maintenance techniques would be interpreted under the law remains fuzzy. Energy Division head Kevin Drude has said that each of the county’s 1,200 oil wells “at some point in its lifetime” will require acidizing for either minor stiumulation or buildup removal.
State Assemblymember Das Williams and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson headlined Monday’s “Yes” conference, joining several other electeds. Jackson called it “sort of frustrating” that they felt compelled to have the conference in the first place and hinted that the measure’s implementation would pave the way for more alternative-energy projects. “Let’s stack up credibility here,” said Williams, pointing to the Platform A blowout in 1969 and Greka spills. Santa Barbara School Boardmember Monique Limón questioned the extent to which the industry’s $12.7 million annual property-tax contribution to the county’s schools is of benefit, saying “our schools would be in a much healthier place” if that were the case.
Uptown, former sheriff Jim Thomas pointed to Auditor-Controller Bob Geis’s fiscal assessment of Measure P, which noted the $20.3 million in property taxes paid to the county by oil companies per year; most goes to schools, with the rest to the county’s general spending pot and fire department. While Geis’s report noted the initiative would prevent any costs from potential environmental destruction, it also foresaw a loss in jobs (a study has tied nearly 2,000 jobs out of the 183,400 available countywide to the industry) and in overall economic contributions ($291.4 million per year currently tied to the industry), plus an undetermined cost to defend the county against lawsuits. “If Measure P passes, the lawyers are going to have a field day,” said Thomas, who referenced the countywide fracking regulations already in place. Most notably, he and the rest of the “No” camp “strongly disagree” that existing operations won’t suffer, Thomas said, estimating the 1,200 existing wells would shut down within five years.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino questioned Williams and Jackson’s support of the measure. “If banning oil production is such a good idea, why hasn’t either one of them introduced legislation to do so on a statewide basis?” he asked, chalking up their involvement to “political games.” Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam also voiced his frustration with the initiative: “The scare tactics and deception in this campaign are coming from Measure P supporters,” he said.
Fellow supervisors Salud Carbajal, Janet Wolf, and Doreen Farr have abstained from taking positions on the measure, as have Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Randy Rowse. Playing for the “Yes” team are Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Cathy Murillo, Gregg Hart, and Bendy White and Santa Maria City Councilmember Terri Zuniga; the measure also has the backing of the Environmental Defense Center, the Community Environmental Council, and the Democratic Party of Santa Barbara County, among other groups. Opponents include Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Dale Francisco, plus the Santa Barbara County Firefighters union, the County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, and the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association.