California Court Rejects Misleading Language In Local Fracking Ballot Initiative–Twice

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Residents of La Habra Heights in Los Angeles County, California want their city to become the latest to ban fracking and other high intensity oil extraction methods, and have placed an initiative on the March 2015 ballot to do just that.

The residents and activists seeking to ban fracking in La Habra Heights won a significant battle on New Year’s Eve when inaccurate and misleading ballot language backed by the oil and gas industry was rejected by the Los Angeles Superior Court. Now they’ve won a second victory against the oil and gas companies trying to game the citizen initiative system.

“The Healthy City Initiative,” also known as Measure A, seeks to ban fracking and would also prohibit any new oil and gas wells from being drilled within city limits, as well as bar dormant wells from being reactivated. The intention is to stop La Habra Heights from becoming the latest fracking boom town without shuttering current oil and gas development projects, so as to have as minimal an impact on the local economy as possible while ensuring the future health and viabillity of the community.

Earthjustice sued the city of La Habra Heights on December 1 on behalf of residents, La Habra Heights Oil Watch, and the Center for Biological Diversity after the city included oil and gas industry language on the ballot that, according to an Earthjustice press release, “inaccurately summarizes the language that was circulated to and signed by voters in order to place the initiative on the ballot in the first place.”

In ruling in favor of the plaintiffs on December 31, the LA Superior Court ordered the city to revise the wording that will be included on the ballot. The city proposed new language on January 5, but it “continued to improperly portray Measure A as having a broad application to all treatments of oil and gas wells,” according to yet another Earthjustice press release.

The LA Superior Court struck down the city’s language once again today, January 7.

“Once again the court has agreed with the citizens of La Habra Heights, and has ordered that the ballot language needs to be accurate and impartial,” Earthjustice attorney Irene Gutierrez said in the latest press release. “This win today supports citizens’ right to a fair elections process.”

Local activists say they were motivated to place Measure A on the March 3, 2015 ballot because of the harmful effects fracking has been shown to have on the environment and human health.

“New invasive drilling developments threaten the health of our community,” La Habra Heights Oil Watch spokeswoman Kathy Steele said in a statement. “We organized residents together to support the Healthy City Initiative, so that we can preserve the green and peaceful community we love.”

More specifically, Measure A is a response to Matrix Oil Co.’s plan to drill for oil in the city and how residents felt that would impact their community. “We don’t want to change the character of La Habra Heights,” Mike Hughes, president of La Habra Heights Oil Watch, told the Whittier Daily News after his group collected the signatures necessary to place the measure on the ballot.“It’s a unique environment. It’s peaceful and rural.”

When it was announced that Measure A had qualified for the ballot, Mike McCaskey, an executive vice president for Matrix Oil, said, “The initiative to try and shut down a project that would have widespread benefits for the city is a really bad idea.”

By invoking fears of a “shutdown” and lost economic opportunity, McCaskey is, inadvertently or not, echoing arguments made last year by opponents of a similar anti-fracking measure in Santa Barbara County.

Another glaring similarity between the fracking fight that played out in Santa Barbara County and the one happening now in La Habra Heights: Oil industry front group Californians for Energy Independence, which donated $200,000 to fight Measure A and also led the charge against Santa Barbara County’s Measure P last November.

Californians for Energy Independence spent some $6.4 million to defeat Measure P—more than was spent on any Congressional race in that election cycle—every penny of which was donated by oil companies like Chevron, Occidental Petroleum, and Exxon.

By contrast, the grassroots-supported campaign in favor of Measure P spent just $300,000, mostly raised from small donors and community members.

But just because Measure P in Santa Barbara County went down in defeat doesn’t mean Measure A’s chances are slim. Despite being outspent 13-to-1 by the oil industry, residents of San Benito County, California succeeded in passing a fracking ban last November. Residents of Mendocino County, California did, too.

“The defeat of Measure P in Santa Barbara does not diminish the reality that residents throughout California are standing up in growing numbers to protect their homes, schools and our state’s vulnerable water supplies,” Food & Water Watch’s Adam Scow said last November.

Oil and gas companies are spending disproportionate amounts of money to defeat citizen-led anti-fracking measures because they fear a domino effect, which explains why La Habra Heights’ Measure A is attracting such attention from the industry. That’s also why the city of Denton, Texas was sued less than 24 hours after residents passed a fracking ban there last year.

Of course, recent news that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has banned fracking might be indicative of the fact that oil and gas companies cannot keep those dominoes from falling now that the facts about fracking are coming out.
 

Image Credit: Zerbor / Shutterstock.com

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Mike Gaworecki is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy, climate, and forest issues for DeSmogBlog and Mongabay.com. His writing has appeared on BillMoyers.com, Alternet, Treehugger, Change.org, Huffington Post, and more. He is also a novelist whose debut “The Mysticist” came out via FreemadeSF in 2014.

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