San Luis Obispo County voters will decide in November whether to ban new oil wells and fracking here, the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday — and full-fledged campaigning is already underway.
Supervisors voted 4-0 to place it on the ballot, along with a 500-word economic impact statement by the county auditor that supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton supported and Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson initially opposed. Supervisor John Peschong recused himself from the entire conversation because, he said, his company has worked for oil companies in California.
In a public comment period before the decision, environmentalists who gathered more than the 8,579 signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the ballot said that more than 20,000 registered voters who signed sent a clear message about the future they want to see in San Luis Obispo County.
They want to allow existing oil operations in the Arroyo Grande Oil Field to continue extracting petroleum, but not allow any expansion of "risky extraction and wastewater injection into a drinking water aquifer," according to Charles Varni with the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County.
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In response, oil industry representatives and their allies said passing the initiative "would result in a complete shutdown of oil and gas industry in San Luis Obispo County," harming the economy and the families who rely on petroleum-industry jobs, according to Paul Delorenzo, who works in the Arroyo Grande oil fields, and others who echoed the same phrase.
Both sides accused the other of misleading statements, and both are clearly already organized with talking points.
Industry representatives from across the region who attended the meeting had matching stickers reading "Stop the oil and gas shutdown," while environmentalists held matching pre-printed signs that urged the board to "Stay neutral" and "Let voters decide."
The board's action on the issue was mostly procedural. After county Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong certified that the necessary signatures were gathered, the board was legally required to either adopt the initiative as an ordinance or send it to the ballot, and everyone in the room asked them to let the voters decide.
Deliberations were marred by contention on two points: whether to include the full-text of the initiative in the sample ballot book at a cost to the county of $100,000 and whether to direct the county auditor to prepare an economic impact statement to be printed in the voter information guide, which was requested by opponents of the initiative, including the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business.
The potential economic impact to the county if the initiative is approved by a majority of voters in November is bound to be a major point of campaign debate for the next five months as both sides work to sway voters.
Christine Halley, the environmental health and safety director for Sentinel Peak Resources, said local industry jobs are "quite precious to the specific incomes that (are) generated from working and supporting California's consumption of oil and gas, which is quite impressive, by the way."
She told the board they would hear from employees with good head-of-household jobs about the potential fiscal impact, which for them "is very personal." Several employees with the Arroyo Grande Oil Field and Phillips 66, as well as others in the industry, spoke against the initiative and the need to keep the jobs that are in the county.
Supporters of the initiative took issue with allegations that their proposed policy change would impact existing jobs, and said the public shouldn't forget the negative economic impact the oil industry could have on the county.
"Any analysis of the costs and benefits of the initiative must address the value of preventing the negative consequences of expanded oil development," said Mary Ciesinski, executive driector of ECOSLO.
"What is the value or savings in avoiding issues such as ... protecting the Pismo Creek/Edna Valley aquifer from overdraft and contamination as a result of expanding the Arroyo Grande Oil Field ... (the) value of protecting the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin and the Five Cities from contamination ... (the) value of preventing increased severity of global climate change?" Cienski asked.
Industry representatives said their jobs are threatened because investors would no longer want to back an operation with no ability to expand.
These are the kinds of economic questions that County Auditor Jim Erb said he could and would not answer in the fiscal impact statement that the board asked him to write. He said he would focus on the impact to the county's general fund, which he said is unclear.
"I don't even know if companies would close down or not if this initiative would pass," Erb said. "My analysis would be this is what we get and whether that is going away or not is what people have to discern."
While Arnold argued that having more financial information available to the voters was a matter of transparency, Hill said it equated to the county placing a thumb on the scales.
Because of the disagreement, the group for awhile was unable to pass a motion to send the initiative to the ballot. If they had failed to do that, a court would likely order them to do so.
Compton and Arnold were willing to drop their initial request to print the full text of the initiative, agreeing that it would be readily available to voters. Hill and Gibson changed their initial position and supported the county auditor writing a fiscal analysis in an effort to "avoid the embarrassment" of having the court order the board to do what is legally required of them.
In preparation for the initiative to be placed on the ballot, the county will publish this week a notice calling for arguments for or against the initiative, which will be due July 20.