Would Measure G shut down existing oil production in SLO County? Not exactly

By now, you’ve probably been bombarded with campaign advertisements claiming that Measure G will completely shut down existing oil and gas production in San Luis Obispo County.

It’s the rallying cry of the oil industry’s No on Measure G campaign, which says the proposed law would increase our dependency on oil from Saudi Arabia, put people out of work and slice tax revenue to schools and emergency services.

But is that true? It’s not that cut and dried.

Measure G allows current petroleum extraction to continue into the near future. (As of April, there were 493 active wells in the county, 389 of which are operated by Sentinel Peak Resources in the Arroyo Grande Oil Field, according to the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. In 2017, operators in the county produced 604,308 barrels, less than 1 percent of all oil produced in California last year.)

How long current production would last under new conditions created by the proposed law is unknown — and the battle to control the public message over the true intent of the measure has led the campaigns to accuse each other of deception and misinformation.

The purpose of Measure G, according to the text of the initiative, is to amend San Luis Obispo County’s General Plan to prohibit oil extraction and well stimulation treatments such as fracking in unincorporated areas of the county while “allowing existing petroleum extraction to continue as a nonconforming use.” “Petroleum extraction will likely be phased out as production from existing wells declines,” the measure says.

A major goal of the measure, according to proponents, is to stop a proposed expansion at the Arroyo Grande Oil Field to protect groundwater and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out production.

Local news matters

We rely on readers like you more than ever before to support us as we tell stories about the people and issues important to SLO County readers.

Subscribe to The Tribune today for just 99 cents for your first month — and help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal

Yet the No on Measure G campaign says that the measure aims to eliminate all oil production in San Luis Obispo County. It would do that, the campaign claims, by banning routine maintenance of existing wells — even though the initiative specifically says it “does not prohibit routine maintenance of existing petroleum extraction operations.”

That point is reiterated in the text of the amendment that would become county code. While well stimulation treatments would be banned, it states that “well stimulation treatments do not include steam flooding, water flooding, or cyclic steaming and do not include routine well cleanout work (or) routine well maintenance. ...”

When asked to clarify how the measure would ban routine well maintenance, No on Measure G campaign spokesman Matt Cunningham told The Tribune that the language allowing maintenance is contradicted by another section of the amendment text that prohibits existing oil production from being “enlarged, increased, extended, or otherwise expanded or intensified.”

By its very nature, well maintenance results in a well’s use being extended or expanded,” Cunningham said. “In other words, all maintenance allows an oil well to either operate longer or operate better. That is the very reason maintenance is performed.

“Contrary to what proponents are saying, that prohibition applies to existing production.”

The Price Canyon oil field is seen in 2017. Measure G would ban new oil wells and fracking in unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Charles Varni, spokesman for the Yes on Measure G campaign, called Cunningham’s argument a misinterpretation of the initiative that would never hold up in court. That uses cannot be “enlarged, increased or extended,” he said, is meant to prohibit the drilling of new wells only.

“This is a distortion of the factual language which makes no reference to production or well maintenance,” Varni said of Cunningham’s interpretation. “That is an absolute lie intended to deceive and manipulate people because the truth is Measure G does not shut down existing operations in the county. In fact, it protects them.”

On this issue, San Luis Obispo County counsel offers little insight.

Their impartial analysis does not mention “routine maintenance.” It does, however, say that “some impacts of the measure are uncertain because it is not known to what extent the banned or limited well stimulation activities are either utilized or necessary to the recovery of oil or gas in the county.”

Yes on Measure G proponents have acknowledged that the language of the initiative is confusing. Ultimately, the full implications of the measure, if it passes, won’t be known until after it’s litigated in the courts.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune