Deep Divide: Ballot measure is a fight over oil practices, water, rights

Supporters of the ban against fracking and limits on oil production watch proceedings from the front row of the board chambers.

Who are the San Benito County residents involved in the debate over Measure J, a ballot initiative aiming to ban fracking and other enhanced recovery methods used by the oil industry?
Note: This is part one in a four-part series.
Paul Hain raises free-range, organic chickens and grows walnuts on a local ranch. Richard Bianchi owns property in the county and works for a farming operation here.
Both have deep ties to the land in a community where agriculture is by far the number one industry – topping $300 million in production last year for the first time – but they have opposing views on a ballot initiative aiming to restrict petroleum production in the county.
“The plusses and minuses regarding extreme oil extraction,” Hain said, “I just view it as – there are a lot more minuses to it.”
Hain is worried about water contamination and over-use of the resource through enhanced recovery practices such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
“There’s the use in fracking, not so much in cyclic steam, of an array of very dangerous chemicals,” he said.
Bianchi said if he really thought methods such as fracking or cyclic steam injections would damage the groundwater aquifer, he wouldn’t maintain his position against the measure.
“I drink the water. I farm the water,” Bianchi said. “Without it, we’ve got a desert.”
For Bianchi, the measure is primarily an issue of property rights.
“It’s about somebody else telling me what I can do with my land,” he said. “Do I have oil beneath my land? I have no idea.”
Hain and Bianchi’s views represent the two sides in an increasingly tension-laced debate over petroleum drilling practices, property rights, water-contamination worries and even broader issues such as energy independence.
Measure J would ban fracking, steam injections and acidization as petroleum-recovery practices in the county. It also would ban all petroleum activities in rural residential zones, largely areas surrounding Hollister and San Juan Bautista.
Those potential restrictions drew in the agriculture community as key players in the debate. One of those residents has been John Eade, a cattle rancher who has become the face – he’s in a commercial and on billboards – for the No on Measure J campaign. Eade called it a property-rights issue, but expressed particular frustration at outside groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and what he called a continual opposition to development. The center sued the county over lacking environmental work on an oil development called Project Indian – it has proposed to use steam injections on a field near Bitterwater – but has not been linked directly to the Measure J campaign and its campaign committee, Protect San Benito.
“The Center for Biological Diversity is the prime mover behind this,” Eade contended.
Andy Hsia-Coron, one of the leaders in the San Benito Rising movement that is now part of Protect San Benito, has continually denied the claim about the Center for Biological Diversity’s link to the campaign.
“Basically, we consider ourselves as members of the community – farmers, ranchers, vintners, small businesspeople,” said Hsia Coron, a retired teacher from Aromas who has lived in the county for 28 years.
Hsia-Coron recalled the first seeds in the effort against enhanced recovery practices – two summers ago when a company did surveying work on Graniterock property in Aromas, inciting concerns about possible fracking exploration there. Concerns arising from that surveying led to a board of supervisors’ debate and revisions to the county’s oil and gas ordinance. Those changes were relatively minor, though. Then there was approval of Citadel Exploration’s Project Indian. The company obtained the county board’s OK last June for an exploratory well with plans to possibly use cyclic steaming – one of the targeted extraction methods that Citadel points out is common in California – at the Bitterwater-area oil field not far from Pinnacles National Park.
“I think they did heroic work in trying to create regulations,” said Hsia-Coron about the Aromas Cares group behind the initial efforts on a county oil ordinance, “but I think it’s not that easy to negotiate strong regulations.”
So Hsia-Coron and others, initially under the San Benito Rising name, obtained the needed signatures and had Measure J placed on the Nov. 4 ballot.
“It wasn’t efficient in our eyes to protect the county,” he said of the ordinance revisions, largely focused on liability bond payments made by developers. “We began to start raising issues – could more be done? In other places people have turned around and said, ‘No, we don’t have to allow this.’”
Calera Wine Co. owner Josh Jensen was drawn into the Measure J effort for the same reason. He first grew concerned after hearing stories of problems in eastern U.S. states – he cited films such as “Gasland” and “Gasland 2” – where fracking occurred and how contamination led to illness and other issues.
“It freaked me out,” the vintner said. “For us here in this county, where it practically hasn’t rained for three years, water is our lifeblood.”
Calera joined the chamber of commerce so it could “have a voice, at least a slight voice” in the debate, especially considering the amounts of money donated by oil companies to the No on Measure J effort. Jensen used that voice in the spring at a chamber of commerce networking event where he had a speaking opportunity and used it to criticize oil developers in attendance.
“I had the megaphone that day,” Jensen said. “I said I’m completely opposed to these oil company people sitting in the front rows.”
Although Citadel Exploration and its Project Indian site may even use conventional recovery methods at this point – and hasn’t considered the use of fracking – Jensen said he is “practically certain” there would be contamination if hydraulic fracturing does occur here.
“That will put my vineyard out of business,” he said.
Another business in Hollister, though, relies on the health of the oil industry.
“Oil is our lifeblood,” said Graham Mackie, part owner of Dassel’s Petroleum in Hollister.
He said everything the business sells comes from crude oil so Measure J is a “very important issue.” He noted that the pro-initiative side has structured the ordinance in a way to ban all petroleum in certain areas, and then he went further.
“I believe from my research that fracking has not taken place in this county before,” Mackie said. “That’s controversial in itself. The other thing as a business owner, and myself as a landowner, it’s restricting property rights. Now when we restrict people’s property rights, that leads to lawsuits against the county and that could be very expensive for our county.”
Larger business organizations speaking out on the matter have backed Mackie’s general view, with the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau and San Benito County Business Council each endorsing the opposing side. The farm bureau also was among the organizations against the initiative, while local groups supporting it include the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter and Indian Canyon.
Hsia-Coron with the Protect San Benito group, however, stressed how those business organizations’ boards made decisions for hundreds of other members. Hsia-Coron is a member of the chamber himself and sits on the green committee, and wasn’t invited to make a presentation to the board before a vote – though its executive director this week said he is welcome to do so. Hsia-Coron said the farm bureau made its decision and then afterward allowed a presentation from his group. The farm bureau’s Mindy Sotelo, however, countered by pointing out that Hain – the organic chicken farmer – made a presentation before the farm bureau’s vote and was allowed to invite other members of the San Benito Rising group.
One local entity staying out of the official endorsement arena is the San Benito County Water District. Executive Director Jeff Cattaneo said his agency is focused on analyzing what comes out of S.B. 4 – a state senate bill – and its regulations for the oil and gas industry on fracking.
“My concerns are always going to be the assurance of the integrity of the wells that are drilled and the monitoring that’s going to be required and who’s going to be doing that,” Cattaneo said.
He said the people doing the pending state report are “very competent.”
“The state will come up with requirements for those types of activities that will be adequate to protect the resources and the environment,” he said.
BALLOT QUESTION:
“Shall San Benito County’s General Plan be amended to ban High-Intensity Petroleum Operations (such as hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, acid well stimulation, and cyclic steam injection, but not Low-Intensity Petroleum Operations) throughout all unincorporated areas, and all Petroleum Operations in residential general plan designations of Rural, Rural Transitional, Rural Residential, Rural/Urban, and Sphere of Influence Rural/Urban, with related zoning changes to implement the new General Plan policies?”
SOME LISTED SUPPORTERS:
Sierra Club, Loma Prieta Chapter
San Benito Rising
Indian Canyon
Latinos United Against Fracking (LUAF)
Luis Valdez, founding artistic director, El Teatro Campesino
Paicines Ranch
Morris Grassfed Beef
Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce
Coke Farm
Gibson Farm
Hain Ranch Organics
Four Sisters Farm
Apricot King Orchards
Calera Winery
DeRose Winery
Bonnie Doon Vineyards
Supervisor Robert Rivas
Supervisor Anthony Botelho
Tony Boch – San Juan Bautista council
Congressman Sam Farr
SOME LISTED OPPONENTS:
San Benito United for Energy Independence
Californians for Energy Independence
California Independent Petroleum Association
San Benito County Business Council
San Benito County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau
San Benito County Farm Bureau
Monterey County Farm Bureau
San Benito County Cattlemen’s Association
San Benito County Cattlewomen’s Association
California Cattlemen’s Association
California Women for Agriculture – Salinas Valley chapter
American Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee
San Benito County Republican Party
Kellie Mancino – California Young Cattlemen’s Association
Larry Barr – president of the business council
Richard Bianchi – president of farm bureau
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS:
Californians for Energy Independence, Including Energy Producers is supporting efforts against local state initiatives such as Measure J. Its largest contributors in 2013 and 2014 include:
Chevron Corp.: $1.24 million
Freeport-McMoran: $463,000
MacPherson Energy Corp.: $79,000
Additionally, Californians for Energy Independence, Including Energy Producers had spent $112K on the campaign from January through June, according to campaign finance documents. From April through June, San Benito Rising spent $13,200, according to the available documents. For more details on campaign contributions as they come in, go to SBCVote.us.

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