Santa Barbara County officials on Tuesday considered the possible passage of Measure P, a countywide proposal to ban high-intensity petroleum operations.
Voters will ultimately decide whether the ballot measure is approved this November, but the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors needed to direct county staff to craft certain implementation ordinances, including rules for exemptions.
After getting an earful from both sides of the oil production and fracking debate, the board unanimously voted to have staff preemptively work on the implementation ordinances.
While most aspects of Measure P would go into effect immediately, county staff said, supervisors needed to administer exemption provisions.
More frankly put, staff asked supervisors to OK implementing ordinances to try heading off some of the litigation the measure might throw their way.
The county has received at least two serious threats of lawsuits since supervisors voted last month to submit the initiative to ban “high-intensity petroleum operations” to voters in the November general election, county counsel Michael Ghizzoni said.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino asked whether Measure P explicitly exempts existing operations from the ban, but Ghizzoni said the word “existing” does not appear in the ballot language.
Measure P’s main proponents, the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians, showed up in full blue-T-shirt-wearing force to support banning all operations that use methods of hydraulic fracturing, oxidization and steam injection for onshore oil production in the unincorporated areas of the county.
According to the measure, exemptions from the prohibition of development, construction, installation or use of any facility or aboveground equipment could be granted when the ban would violate constitutional rights, constitute an “unconstitutional taking of property” or apply to a person/entity with a “vested right” as of the effective date.
Nearly 30 public speakers took to the podium in Santa Barbara and remotely in Santa Maria, sharing concerns over ballot language that could hurt existing oil operations.
“We do not have the option of changing a word of that ballot,” Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr said.
“It does expressly state within the ballot measure that we then are obligated to come up with these implementation ordinances.”
If the measure doesn’t pass, the exemption ordinances don’t matter, she said.
Others called Measure P flawed, a fiscal risk to the budget, job-killer and general waste, since fracking was not an issue in the county.
“I am not surprised that you’ve been threatened with litigation,” said Katie Davis of the Water Guardians, alleging oil-company-fueled scare tactics. “I would ask that the Board of Supervisors and county staff not be intimidated.”
Davis said the initiative would prevent a massive increase in these operations, not disband those in existence.
County staff said 50 percent of 1,200 active area wells use a cyclic-steaming process, while the rest will use one or more of the procedures indicated in Measure P in their lifetime.
The measure was anything but neighborly, according to Santa Barbara City Councilman Frank Hotchkiss.
“How would we feel if our neighbors from the north decided to ban one of our means of employment?” he said. “Let’s not set a terrible precedent by being un-neighborly to them.”
Another speaker likened fracking to “environmental molestation of Mother Nature.”
Joining remotely from Santa Maria, Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam asked why ordinances needed to be created before a vote.
Ghizzoni said ordinances could mitigate litigation, noting that the county budget must be augmented and two attorneys added if Measure P passes in November.
“I think it’s going to be challenging and (be on a) case by case exemption,” he said.
“And expensive,” Adam added. “I think that this thing is really ill-advised.”
The county is self-insured up to $500,000, counsel said, but other insurance might not cover litigation of the initiative.
Ghizzoni said staff wouldn’t know if the county would be covered until it came out of a potential litigation process at the court of appeal.