Should we ban fracking? SLO County voters will likely be asked to decide in November

A measure to ban fracking in San Luis Obispo County that could also prevent a controversial expansion of the Arroyo Grande Oil Field will likely appear on the November ballot this year.

The initiative is sponsored by the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, a group of local volunteers working to protect local water, air and soil from pollution while encouraging a shift toward renewable energy, according to a news release.

Coalition co-chairs Charles Varni and Natalie Risner delivered a petition with 20,000 signatures to the San Luis Obispo County Clerk on May 1 to qualify the issue for the ballot. The group needs valid 8,579 signatures.

"The 20,000 San Luis Obispo County registered voters who signed the initiative have created a historic opportunity for us all in November of 2018," Varni said. "They have stated what they want and, in the process, have presented us with a concrete option which bans new oil wells in the county, and will as a result, help protect our precious groundwater resources from contamination by oilfield waste, and prevent fracking on our farms, ranges and oak woodlands."

The initiative would prohibit using land in the county’s unincorporated areas for oil well stimulation treatments like fracking and acidizing, a concern for local environmentalists that say the Monterey Shale formation that underlies a part of the county has been identified as a likely location for such techniques.

(Fracking is the process of injecting water and chemicals under high pressure into oil-bearing deposits deep underground to crack the rock and release oil and natural gas. Acidizing involves pumping acid into a well to dissolve the rock and create channels to allow oil and gas to reach the well.)

The initiative would also prohibit new oil and gas well-drilling land uses on unincorporated county lands, essentially putting a block on the long-planned expansion of the Arroyo Grande Oil Field, also known as the Price Canyon Oil Field.

Fracking Petition014
Members of the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County deliver more than 20,000 signatures to the SLO County Clerk-Recorder's Office to qualify the environmental protection measure on the November 2018 ballot. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Freeport-McMoRan Inc. sold its onshore California oil and gas properties to Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC for $742 million in 2016. Among those properties was the 112-year-old Arroyo Grande Oil Field, located halfway between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach on Price Canyon Road at Ormonde Road.

When it acquired the oil field, Sentinel also inherited a stalled plan to expand oil production at the field; that plan was held up in regulatory limbo for several years while the Environmental Protection Agency pondered whether it would approve a necessary aquifer exemption that would allow the addition of 481 new wells at the property.

The California Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources announced it would allow the exemption in December, though not for the entire portion of the field the company applied for. This means the proposed expansion could have to be scaled down.

Sentinel has since been mum on whether it plans to pursue the expansion. Attempts to contact a Sentinel representative for comment were unsuccessful Friday.

The Committee to Stop the Oil and Gas Shutdown in San Luis Obispo County protested the initiative's broad reach on Tuesday, claiming it was an effort to stop all oil and gas production in the county. Spokesman Aaron Hanke also claimed the initiative would increase reliance on outside sources for oil.

“This initiative is unnecessary and goes too far," Hanke said. "Two hundred and sixty local and mainly blue-collar workers and families from diverse backgrounds who are reliant on the oil and gas industry would be threatened with losing their jobs, and millions in state and local taxes used to fund local schools as well as police and fire would also be lost. With the impending closure of Diablo Canyon, the last thing residents in San Luis Obispo County need is the loss of more middle-class job opportunities."

Assistant County Clerk-Recorder Elaina Cano said the office will now review and verify the 20,473 signatures submitted; once that occurs, and if the signatures are found to be valid, the department will certify the results at the following Board of Supervisors meeting.

From there they will develop a calendar for submitting impartial analysis, arguments and rebuttals ahead of the initiative appearing on the November ballot.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928; @kaytyleslie