The opposing camps behind Measure P agreed at a debate this week that the drilling ban would mean “substantial change” for Santa Barbara County — but how each side envisions “change” remains a divisive matter. Dave Davis, president of the initiative-backing Community Environmental Council, played for the “Yes” side against former School Board president and Libertarian Lanny Ebenstein, who swung for the “No” team.
The initiative would outlaw all new fracking, acidizing, and cyclic steam–injection wells in the county’s unincorporated areas if a majority of voters say so on November 4. Since the measure made it to the ballot, supporters and detractors have cast opposing opinions on what effect its passage could have. For the past several months, the county’s Planning department has been hashing out how to handle exemptions — for instances of vested rights and takings — and the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to have the final say on the protocols at its October 7 meeting.
Hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Louise Lowry Davis Center on Wednesday, the debate attracted a room packed with what appeared to be mostly Measure P supporters — many wore the blue T-shirts affiliated with the campaign that they had to turn inside out, and many scoffed at Ebenstein’s remarks — and a handful of oil industry proxies, who, in the same vein, were asked to stop handing out campaign literature inside. Prior to Davis’s and Ebenstein’s comments, former County Counsel Shane Stark gave a guffaw-filled overview of how the oil industry is regulated both by the state and the county.
Stark started with the older history of oil in the area — from how the Chumash used natural seeps to caulk their canoes and how oil derricks dotted the Mesa, to how the 1969 oil spill paved the way for the environmental movement — and the more recent history, including the supervisors’ 2011 vote for stricter countywide fracking regulations. Stark also mentioned Senate Bill 4, the statewide law aimed at getting a tighter grip on fracking and acidizing — but not cyclic steam–injection — operations. In general, Stark said, the state’s regulatory purview moves from the head of a well to the center of the earth, while the county’s moves out from the head of a well to the county borders. When pressed by attendees as to whether Measure P would affect existing projects, Stark said he would be “extremely reluctant” to guess how the county would go about applying the law of vested rights.
Davis jumped into his speech by neutering a popular “No” talking point, saying that the issue is “bigger than” a North County-South County philosophical divide. Instead, Davis said, it’s a David-versus-Goliath struggle — “I’m David,” he quipped, noting he expects the oil industry to outspend the competition 40 times over — and part of a larger discussion about how to combat climate change. He pointed to the BP oil spill and said, “Human error happens. Mistakes happen. And the consequences come back to you.”
Although he stated the measure won’t affect existing operations, Davis said the industry’s fears that the measure’s passage would mean a complete shutdown aren’t entirely unwarranted because oil is a “finite resource.” He minimized the legal threats posed by oil companies — “Yes, there’s going to be a lawsuit or two” — but said the county can lead. “What future do we choose?” he asked.
In his speech, Ebenstein envisioned a different future. “If Measure P passes, it would be a tragedy,” he said, adding it would go down as the “most harmful initiative ever passed” in Santa Barbara County. Ebenstein focused his predictions for “substantial change” on the measure’s effects on the environment and the economy. On the environmental front, Ebenstein argued, Measure P would lead to more foreign oil production in countries with lower standards and would mean more oil-filled tankers traversing the ocean. Just as with locally grown food, Ebenstein said, locally produced oil is environmentally superior.
Financially, Measure P would stress an already economically hard-hit North County, Ebenstein stated, and a decrease in property tax revenues paid by oil companies would mean less money for schools and other services. The “drastic, flawed, and costly proposal” would also go above and beyond the two lawsuits projected by Davis, he continued, reiterating a statement from the County Counsel office that the measure could give the county its biggest lawsuit exposure.