Santa Barbara County counsel on the potential liability of Measure P: “Biggest exposure the County will ever have”

From accusations that fracking causes earthquakes to court rulings in New York that towns can outlaw the technique, the movement to ban hydraulic fracturing has been picking up steam around the nation.

Here in California, a bitter fight is being waged in Santa Barbara County. A group called the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians has put forth a ballot measure for November—Measure P—that would ban “high intensity” gas and oil operations such as fracking, oxidization, and steam injection. The group filed its initiative and intent to circulate in March earlier this year.

Proponents of the initiative assert that oil production “creates blight that discourages tourism and technology” as well as “negatively affect[s] the value of adjacent properties and farms.” The Water Guardians further stress that very few jobs are created and water is wasted at the expense of “asthma and other chronic health problems.”

In response to the ban, a coalition of residents, taxpayers and citizens, as well as small energy producers have banded together to express their opposition to the measure. The Coalition of Santa Barbara County Taxpayers, Consumers and Energy Producers is quick to point out that no fracking occurs in Santa Barbara, nor are there any permits for fracking operations in the near future.

“Point A, we don’t frack here, so fracking isn’t an issue,” remarked Andy Caldwell of the Coalition for Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) in an interview with KEYT. “They are trying to take a campaign of hysteria and apply it to Santa Barbara County when we don’t have fracking here.”

Opponents of Measure P instead claim that the initiative is drafted broadly enough to ban existing, safe and traditional methods of extracting gas, threatening to shut down oil production in Santa Barbara County. They assert that 100% of the County’s wells employ at least one technique that is included in the initiative’s language and would therefore be rendered inoperable.

Just last month the Lompoc Record editorial board felt it necessary to clarify on this point:

“But passage of Measure P would also do quite a lot more, and while its supporters aren’t saying a lot about those other impacts of passing Measure P, we feel morally and ethically compelled to shed some light on such a blanket prohibition. Briefly stated, passing Measure P would have devastating effects on the local economy. Because it’s not just a ban on fracking, but on all other forms of enhanced oil extraction, now widely and safely used in oil development.”

Oil companies, both large and small, contribute over $291 million to Santa Barbara’s economy and employ several thousand workers along the Central Coast. According to an economic impact report commissioned by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, these jobs pay workers an average between $75,000 and $100,000 annually, which is significantly greater than the County’s median household income of $58,000. On top of this, Santa Barbara County collects over $16 million dollars in tax revenue from oil companies—with over 60% of that revenue allotted to local schools.

number of local elected officials have thrown their support behind Measure P. Still others are concerned about the economic toll it will exact on county revenues and the local economy, including the Santa Barbara County Firefighters Association, the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, the Peace Officers Research Association, and the Santa Barbara County Cattleman’s Association.

In addition to lost revenue and the flight of good-paying jobs, Measure P threatens Santa Barbara County with increased exposure to litigation. Notably, the Board of Supervisors recently discussed the extent to which the initiative will expose the county to litigation at a special Board of Supervisors meeting in July.

Santa Barbara County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni was asked to put a figure to the amount of legal risk the County would take on if Measure P passes in November. While he could not identify a specific figure, he conceded that it could lead to the biggest legal exposure the county has ever had.

“Last month we produced 360,000 barrels of oil, so it would be very significant,” Board Chair Steve Lavagnino stated.

After voting to send Measure P to the voters, the Board of Supervisors has received at least two serious threats of lawsuits. The County is self-insured up to $500,000 but counsel is concerned that litigation surrounding the initiative’s impact would not be fully covered by other types of insurance.

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What are your thoughts on fracking and local initiatives such as Measure P? Comment below or email the Editor with your response.