Tuesday’s election determined much more than the balance of power in Congress. In California, Ohio, and Texas, citizens in four localities voted to ban hydraulic fracturing and other activities associated with unconventional oil and gas drilling, challenging the balance of power between state officials in charge of regulating drilling and local communities concerned about the potential risks. The bans in California and Texas, in particular, could have ripple effects in neighboring counties and portend future battles between localities skeptical of oil and gas drilling and state governments that support new development.
In California, residents of three counties put initiatives on the ballot to ban hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional drilling practices within their borders, and the oil industry took notice. Citizens of San Benito County voted to pass Measure J, banning all “high intensity” oil and gas operations. Oil and gas companies had invested heavily to try to defeat the San Benito initiative, outspending supporters 15–1. Mendocino County voters enacted a similar ban. In Santa Barbara County, the oil and gas companies spent more than $5 million and successfully defeated Measure P. All told, the opponents of these ballot measures spent $7.7 million on these initiatives, more than Gov. Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial opponent spent on his entire campaign.
In Texas, a state known for its deep support for the oil and gas industry, the residents of the city of Denton passed an initiative to ban all oil and gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing after one company started drilling less than 200 feet from homes despite town regulations requiring a much larger buffer. Opponents of the Denton ban outraised its supporters by almost 20-to-1. The overwhelming majority of these contributions — 97.5 percent — came from five oil companies. In Ohio, one of the four ballot measures seeking a ban on hydraulic fracturing passed.
These are not the first municipal and county-level attempts to ban oil and gas operations or exert more local control over the operations themselves. Dozens of localities across the country have banned or are considering bans on the use of hydraulic fracturing within their boundaries or practices associated with the drilling process, such as the disposal of polluted wastewater. Others, like the city of Mansfield, Texas, are simply calling for tougher regulations, such as requirements to drill wells at least 1,500 feet from homes.
The supporters of these local measures usually cite a variety of reasons for why they want to ban or restrict drilling in their communities, including the potential impact of oil and gas operations on air and water quality, human health, and property values. But at the root of these local ordinances and ballot initiatives is a lack of trust.
Many citizens do not trust the assurances of industry that the oil and gas industry can operate without harm, as those assurances often contradict the headlines they see in the newspaper on a worryingly frequent basis. “Oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of ’07.” “Radioactive waste booms with fracking as new rules mulled.” “High air pollution levels found near Ohio gas wells.” “Wastewater injection is culprit for most earthquakes in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, study finds.” For those living next to or downwind from drilling operations, industry’s assurances may even stand in stark contrast to their daily reality.
Moreover, supporters of these local bans often no longer trust their elected officials to listen and respond to their concerns when doing so would require challenging the interests of the oil and gas industry. This lack of trust in the regulators is evident in the language used by some of those advocating for local bans and more local control over drilling operations.
“Local and state governments are broken,” said one resident of Youngstown, Ohio who supported the hydraulic fracturing ban on the ballot. “They’re putting corporations before the health, safety and property rights of citizens.” Similarly, thousands of miles away, supporters of Measure P in Santa Barbara, California argued that a citizen initiative is necessary because the “oil industry has demonstrated willingness to interfere with elected officials’ ability to curtail or limit risky extraction techniques.”
The tenor of the campaigns to fight the local ballot measures may have exacerbated the distrust that gave rise to the initiatives in the first place. Some opponents of the local bans chose to employ a strategy of trying to discredit the bans’ local supporters and paint their concerns as illegitimate. Some even suggested that the local citizens’ convictions and concerns about drilling weren’t even their own — a suggestion that likely is quite insulting to those who supported a ban.
On October 23, 2014, the Republican staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works released a report on hydraulic fracturing. In it, the staff argue that local efforts to limit or ban hydraulic fracturing are part of a “’faux’ grassroots effort” that is attempting to “distort the truth about hydraulic fracturing online through shameless propaganda and marketing.” Energy in Depth (EID), an organization created by the oil and gas industry, alleged that those working to restrict hydraulic fracturing in Denton, Texas were little more than stooges of “east coast anti-fracking groups.” Members of the Texas Railroad Commission — the entity charged with overseeing the safety of oil and gas development in the state, despite its name — went so far as to insinuate that Russia is behind the effort to restrict hydraulic fracturing in Denton and other parts of the United States.
By disregarding the citizens who question the safety of hydraulic fracturing and similar activities, the oil and gas industry and its supporters may exacerbate the suspicions and doubt that are at the root of local efforts to restrict drilling. This is a short-sighted and antagonistic approach that does nothing to mitigate legitimate concerns about the potential — but real — risks posed by oil and gas drilling. As one supporter of Measure P in Santa Barbara put it, the ballot initiative “was the start of something, not the end of something.” The head of Frack Free Denton wrote the following after learning that the group’s initiative had passed:
To those in industry and government who are concerned by the success of this ban, rather than try to overturn it, address why we had to pass it. Because the ban was our LAST RESORT. We tried for years to get government and industry to work with us. And they wouldn’t. This was the only way left open to us. And so we took it.
If industry and state regulators want to prevent more communities from enacting bans on hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities, they have a choice. They can spend millions of dollars fighting these local campaigns, county by county, city by city, and courthouse by courthouse. Or, the oil and gas companies and their supporters can recognize that ignoring American citizens with legitimate concerns about the impact of oil and gas drilling activities on their families and homes is not a viable — or ethical — strategy.
Both industry and state regulators need to commit to the hard work required to rebuild trust with the communities that see the risks of oil and gas drilling as far outweighing any potential benefits.