Voters in three coastal California counties vote Tuesday on whether to ban fracking and other intensive oil production, even as slumping prices globally are leading companies to start to scale back on production. Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other oil companies have donated about $7 million to try to defeat the fracking bans in Santa Barbara, San Benito, and Monterey counties.
In Santa Barbara and San Benito counties, the ballot measures would ban not only fracking but one of the most commonly used drilling methods in the state, steam injection. None of the three counties currently are known to host onshore fracking. That has led some opponents of the fracking bans to argue the vote is no more necessary than banning ice-fishing in the temperate, coastal counties. However, all three counties lie on the Monterey Shale, a vast petroleum deposit earlier estimated to hold more than 10 billion barrels of oil. Interest in the formation faded earlier this year when the federal government slashed its estimate of the formation's recoverable oil to 600 million barrels, acknowledging the region's mangled geology made extracting the rest of the oil financially unfeasible, at least for now.
Nationally and internationally, increasing production of North America's shale oil has driven oil prices down to about $80 a barrel, a one-quarter drop since mid-summer. Campaigners for the California fracking bans argue oil companies will want to use fracking and other stepped-up methods to go after the area's shale deposits whenever oil prices rise again. "It's still on the table that the Monterey is a significant resource," said Bruce Luyendyk, a geologist and retired professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and supporter of the fracking ban. "I think that's very much the issue for oil companies that are fighting the fracking ban in the three counties."
Campaigners for the bans on fracking and other intensive new drilling methods also cite the risk to drinking-water aquifers, fears about increased earthquakes and an overarching desire to move society toward renewable forms of energy. Opponents say the local initiatives are portrayed as fracking bans, but would bar many other forms of oil and gas drilling as well. "This is a group that wants to shut down fossil fuel production for the sake of global climate change," said Jim Byrne, spokesman for the coalitions of oil producers and others opposing the measure in Santa Barbara County.
Oil companies are funding radio, television, internet and newspaper ads, contending local communities could lose millions of dollars in tax revenue from oil and gas producers. If voters in Santa Barbara ban key drilling methods, blocking owners of local mineral rights and energy companies from developing fields, "the lawsuits are going to start pouring in," Byrne predicted.
Scores of local governments around the country already have enacted fracking bans, and New York's highest court upheld a local ban in a precedent-setting decision there earlier this month. "As the extent of ... fracking has grown nationally in the past few years, public attention has grown in parallel to that," said Jayni Foley Hein, policy director for the Institute for Policy Integrity in New York.