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Oil Industry And Anti-Fracking Advocates Collide In San Luis Obispo This Election Season — Along With Millions In Campaign Dollars

Antandrus / English Wikipedia

The Russell Ranch Oil Field is an oil and gas field in the Cuyama Valley of northern Santa Barbara and southern San Luis Obispo Counties.

Antandrus / English Wikipedia

Oil companies have put San Luis Obispo in the crosshairs. Residents in that county will vote on whether to ban fracking and new oil exploration next week — and companies such as Chevron are pouring millions of dollars into the fight against a modestly funded effort by local environmentalists.

"There's no fracking in San Luis Obispo County, and we want to keep it that way,” said Charles Varnis with the Yes on Measure G campaign, who added that the region  “is very frackable."

The group has raised far less than the industry-backed No on G campaign, under $300,000, in its effort to halt the proposed expansion of an oil field of around 400 new wells.

Varnis said that extracting oil can impact water resources. “We're concerned about the contamination of our precious water supplies,” Varnis said.

If the measure passes, it could become the seventh California county to ban fracking.

"California has not yet stepped up to reduce oil and gas drilling in the state,” said Adam Scow with Food and Water Watch. “So, local residents are being heroes by taking this on themselves."

And Gwen Arnold, who studies fracking at UC Davis, says even if the measure passes, it'll probably get held up in court, because “there’s this argument that it would eventually phase out production in the county,” Arnold said.

“It’s an interesting time and we are probably going to see more of this … because we are not doing enough to combat climate change,” she added.

A similar Monterey County initiative passed in 2016, which was later challenged by oil companies. A judge ruled that the companies can still inject wastewater into oil wells and that county law is preempted by state and federal laws when it comes to injecting wastewater and stopping oil exploration.

The judge took no action on the fracking ban aspect of the measure, since there is no fracking in the county. At least one appeal was filed earlier this year.

Still, Arnold says questions remain over whether localities have the authority. She thinks it “will embolden other citizens,” Arnold said. “So, if officials, stakeholders and citizens are seeing it happen in counties around them they can use it as an example.”

The Yes on G campaign is concerned about the local impacts to groundwater, from oil spills to the reinjection of wastewater. And some cities and counties think investments should be made in renewable energy instead of expanding fossil fuel activity.

“The public … and local governments are feeling disempowered at the federal level and a little bit disempowered at the state level and trying to take this into their own hands,” said Deborah Sivas, who teaches environmental law at Stanford University.

Sivas says the Monterey and San Luis Obispo measures are encouraging other cities and counties to do the same, especially in light of the Trump administration's desire to expand offshore oil drilling.  

“Local governments are trying to shore up their own laws right now to be ready for that,” Sivas said. “They're kind of anticipating that change in federal policy and trying to put some things on the books that would try to head it off.”

Oil companies such as Chevron say it's the company's right and responsibility to support "policies that can affect the company's ability to explore for and produce energy."

The No on Measure G campaign did not respond to CapRadio's interview requests and AERA Energy, one of the backers of the no campaign, declined to comment.

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