Mendocino County voters have overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative banning fracking in the county, joining San Benito County in saying no to the controversial method of extracting oil and gas from deep within rock formations.
Preliminary results Wednesday showed 67 percent of Mendocino voters favored the ban, known as Measure S. San Benito’s measure passed with 57 percent of the vote. A third anti-fracking measure on the California ballot was defeated in Santa Barbara County by 63 percent of the vote.
“I’m happy, but cautious, too,” said Jamie Lee, a Measure S proponent and a former Wall Street trader turned organic farmer. He noted that the oil industry pumped about $7 million into defeating the other proposed California fracking bans and that state and federal agencies may not care for the local-governance aims included in the measure.
“We’re poking a bear in the eye,” he said.
Measure S faced no formal opposition, Lee said. Oil extraction has been occurring in Santa Barbara and San Benito counties for decades but producers have largely bypassed Mendocino County, which had no commercial oil or gas wells listed in 2013 state records.
Efforts to ban fracking have been growing nationwide, with more than 100 counties and cities in the United States having banned the practice in recent years. Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — involves forcing water, chemicals and other materials into rock formations to expand cracks and allow oil and gas to flow more freely.
Voters on Tuesday passed anti- fracking ordinances in Denton, Texas, and Athens, Ohio. Santa Cruz has a ban on all oil and gas extractions, Beverly Hills passed a fracking ban earlier this year and there are proposals in the works for fracking bans in Los Angeles and Butte County, according to Hollin Kretzmann of the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, which is active in the campaign to ban fracking.
Opponents say fracking poses serious contamination risks for groundwater and a range of other environmental and public health concerns. But proponents of the decades-old practice say it is safe and can make low-producing oil fields more productive and financially viable, increasing the country’s oil resources.
Citing the lack of local oil development, some Mendocino County residents publicly questioned why a ban was needed in the first place. They raised their objections in letters to local newspapers.
Lee said the measure is preventive and that banning fracking is only part of what it aims to accomplish.
Unlike the other anti-fracking measures, Measure S went beyond a simple fracking ban, including language asserting that the community has a right to self-governance that supersedes state and federal law, Lee said.
“We are declaring, through this ordinance, that we are the stewards of the land and we have these rights that are inherent,” he said.
But the assertion of superior local lawmaking authority, along with several other sections of the ballot measure, may not be legally defensible, according to a legal opinion by interim Mendocino County Counsel Doug Losak. Questionable provisions also include the harsh penalties for “toxic trespass,” including a year in county jail and $10,000 fine for each violation of the fracking ordinance. Each stroke of a fracking pump is considered a separate violation, potentially racking up life sentences for violators. The measure also prohibits anyone from parking fracking-related equipment in Mendocino County.
“It is likely that a court would find at least some of the sections of the initiative in violation of state and/or federal laws or constitutions,” Losak wrote.
Measure S proponents both agree and disagree with Losak’s opinion.
“Mr. Losak is correct about one thing, the law is not currently on your side,” states a letter to Measure S proponents from Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange, the international human rights group, and attorney Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
“Your right to govern your own county has been canceled out by the ‘rights’ of corporations and the authority of the state to pre-empt your lawmaking. Measure S is about changing that. It is about changing the law by challenging the law,” the letter states.
The ordinance is expected to take effect after the election is certified by the elections office, which has a month to do so.