Big Oil used $8 million and ‘trusted messengers’ to defeat SLO County ban on drilling

A citizens’ initiative to ban fracking and new oil wells in San Luis Obispo County failed in Tuesday’s midterm election after the oil industry spent nearly $8 million to defeat it using a barrage of strategic advertising featuring “trusted messengers.”

On Wednesday, ballots counted so far showed that 30,574 voters opposed the initiative and 23,084 voters supported it. That gives the No on Measure G campaign an 11-point lead, a gap that is unlikely to be closed even with tens of thousands vote-by-mail and provisional ballots left to be counted.

For months, voters were bombarded with an unprecedented amount of targeted advertisements, from promoted social media posts to glossy mailers and traditional media ads. All featured the faces of local community members, including teachers, farmers, small business owners and scientists, quoting the same talking points. Some of those messages were inaccurate.

Matt Cunningham, spokesman with the No on Measure G campaign, said its success was due to having “a consistent truthful message to tell voters,” and a broad coalition.

Another key was what Cunningham called “trusted messengers” —“regular people who know their subject matter and they’re relatable and credible,” he explained.

Those No on Measure G ads are what environmental activist Charles Varni believes had the biggest influence on voters.

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“It starts with (the No on Measure G campaign) having millions of dollars available to spend to hire the best consulting firms, some of the best political operatives, people who are familiar with digital marketing ... doing numerous polls, focus groups and putting together talking points that tested very well, and being able to publish those thousands of times,” Varni said.

Locals like Varni said they were motivated by climate change and the desire to protect underground water resources when they brought Measure G to voters — in part, to prevent a proposed expansion of 481 new oil wells in the Arroyo Grande Oilfield near Pismo Beach— while allowing current oil production to continue. They also hoped to ban fracking in the county before it starts.

The mostly grassroots campaign reached out to voters with a series of informational meetings, canvassing and some advertising.

Measure G supporters got financial backing from environmental organizations and individual donors to the tune of about $240,000. (Half of that amount was in the form of nonmonetary contributions such as art for an auction or donated professional services.) The Center for Biological Diversity was a major donor, contributing around $60,000.

That effort was dwarfed by millions in oil money donated to the No on Measure G campaign from Chevron, Sentinel Peaks Resources and Aera Energy, which is co-owned by Shell and ExxonMobil.

That campaign chest was mostly divvied up between the direct cost of the advertising and paying the strategists who come up with what those advertisements should say: political consultants and campaign managers with years of experience who rely on costly polls to learn what voters think.

Those local campaign spokespeople told their neighbors that “There is no fracking in San Luis Obispo” and that “Measure G goes too far,” calling it a complete “shutdown of existing energy production” that would cost local jobs, increase dependency on foreign oil and cut funding to schools and emergency services.

San Luis Obispo County Assessor Tom Bordonaro said in anti-Measure G advertising that the measure “bans routine maintenance,” a teacher said the county would lose tax revenue from a shutdown and a fisherman said the state would be more reliant on oil shipped in tankers from Russia and Saudi Arabia. (San Luis Obispo County produces less than half a percent of oil produced in California.)

That message has a tenuous relationship to the facts of Measure G.

It’s accurate that there is currently no fracking in San Luis Obispo County. But it’s a leap to say the measure would have caused a complete shutdown of existing production. Text of the full measure and proposed rule changes clearly say current operations and routine maintenance would be allowed to continue.

“They fabricated and put together any talking point that they could come up with to flip the voter to their side,” Varni said of Measure G opponents. “Given that capacity, our ability to respond to that with what we understood the truth to be — not shutting them down, allowing them to do maintenance — that got lost in the forest of the onslaught of misinformation.”

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @MonicaLVaughan
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