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Fracking bans pass in 2 counties, fail in Santa Barbara

An oil well frames vineyards in Cat Canyon in Santa Barbara County. Measure P would ban some common practices used in oil fields, which would ultimately destroy the industry in Santa Barbara County, opponents say.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
An oil well frames vineyards in Cat Canyon in Santa Barbara County. Measure P would have banned high-intensity production techniques growing in use in the region; well operators argue that the techniques are safe.

Measures aimed at increasing control over non-conventional oil extraction known as “fracking” passed in two California counties after Tuesday’s vote. But a similar ban failed decisively in Santa Barbara, the only one of the three places where well operators use the technique, and where they are seeking to expand it.

In San Benito and Mendocino Counties, voters approved bans on high-intensity oil production techniques. In San Benito, nearly 57 percent of voters supported Measure J.  Mendocino’s Measure S passed decisively with 67 percent of the vote.

Environmental activists claimed San Benito’s victory for the larger anti-fracking movement, which also has roots in's climate activism. "We set the bar for the rest of California,” said Kristin Owenreay at Measure J’s campaign party.

No public records of past fracking in San Benito exist; during the campaign, oil producers emphasized that no plans to frack there are underway. State records document no active wells within Mendocino county borders.

Oil industry money flooded into both San Benito and Santa Barbara to defeat the fracking bans. Chevron, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum and others spent over $1.8 million on the San Benito race.

In Santa Barbara county, voters sent Measure P to a decisive defeat, with "no" votes outnumbering "yes" 63 percent to 37 percent.

“Onshore oil and gas production has operated safely for over a century in the county, and…voters have reaffirmed their desire for safe oil and gas production to continue,” said Jim Byrne, a spokesman with the No on P campaign. 

Local oil producers threatened lawsuits against Santa Barbara County if Measure P succeeded. And Californians for Energy Independence, an industry group with major funding from Chevron and Aera Energy, funneled $7.6 million into Measure P. Local donors to the measure included Santa Maria Energy, Pacific Coast Energy Company, Venoco, and ERG, an independent operator that recently applied for 233 cyclic steam injection wells.

County agencies remained neutral during the campaign, but Erinn Briggs, an energy specialist with Santa Barbara County's Planning Department, confirmed that a majority of proposed onshore wells would use the technique

Supporters of the Measure P moratorium blamed being outspent 20-1 for their loss and vowed to continue watchdogging oil production in Santa Barbara. 

Rebecca Claassen, a co-founder of the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians, said, “This campaign was the beginning of the fight, not the end.”