A fracking fight that we’re still fighting


Last November, San Benito County became the first county in California to stand up to the most powerful industry on Earth. We banned fracking and other intensive oil extraction methods, despite a Big Oil pushback that was lavishly funded and Orwellian in its methods of attack.

San Benito is a landlocked rural county, nestled between Fresno and the drought-ridden Central Valley to the east and the picturesque Monterey coastline to the west. San Jose and trendy Silicon Valley are next door to the north, but many people up there have never heard of this place. There are roughly 56,000 San Benitoans, most residing in the county seat, Hollister.

In August 2013, a group of us organized to put a fracking ban on the local ballot, calling it Measure J. San Benito has more organic farms than any of the state’s other 57 counties, and we believed that fracking was too risky for our businesses. We pulled in a diverse group to form the Coalition to Protect San Benito, attracting farmers, ranchers, vintners, soccer moms, high-tech commuters -- locals from all walks of life who wanted to protect the county’s lifeblood, our water.

Our main argument was that once water gets fracked, nothing in this world can clean it up. There is no technology known that can unfrack fracked water – the toxic liquid sludge the industry calls “produced water.” (I am surprised they haven’t started calling it “enhanced water.”) Fracked water stays that way until, say, the sun swallows this earth in about 5 billion years or so. 

Measure J also banned matrix acidization. That occurs when oil drillers inject massive amounts of hydrochloric acid underground to “re-stimulate” a well, and it also banned cyclic steam injection, which uses more than a million gallons of precious water per well to heat up the hidden deposits lurking beneath.

The opposition kicked off its campaign by stealing our motto: “Protect San Benito.” It showed up everywhere, from billboards to Pandora radio ads. Their TV ads deadpanned prophecies of doom, warning that Measure J would shutter grade schools, kill jobs, perhaps all hope.

They corralled to their side the conservative factions of the local Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, the Cattlemen’s Association, even the Tea Party-influenced editorial board of the one and only newspaper in Hollister. Op-eds came out calling our grassroots efforts “eco-terrorism,” and ringleaders like myself “outside radical agitators” and “jihadists.” I am not making that up. Television ads flashed black-hooded, machete-rattling fanatics on-screen with the emblazoned caption “Isis,” following a soapy vignette featuring a Hollister couple in their breakfast nook, tsk-tsking about how Measure J outlaws conventional oil drilling.

Measure J allows conventional oil drilling, we continually corrected our critics; it always did, still does, and always will.

In all, Big Oil represented by Chevron, Exxon and Occidental Oil Corp. -- the true outside agitators -- spent an unprecedented $2 million in this county trying to derail the measure, in contrast to the coalition’s locally raised $120,000.

Yet Measure J won in a landslide with an 18-point spread: 59 percent to 41 percent. We had a 58 percent voter turnout that could be attributed to Measure J, while the rest of the state had a 41 percent turnout. Nothing was settled, though.

In late February of this year, the Citadel Corp., based in Newport Beach, California, officially filed suit against the county for a startling $1.2 billion, claiming that’s what it will lose by not being able to drill. For comparison, the county’s entire yearly budget is a mere $3.2 million. Citadel had wanted to drill 1,000 steam wells just six miles from our eco-tourist gem, the Pinnacles National Park, home to 30 rare California condors. During the campaign, the president of Citadel was anything but kind in referring to supporters of Measure J: “In a fairer world, these people would be dragged out into the courtyard and dealt with accordingly.”

I believe that my county, faced with punitive litigation, will prevail and that our fracking ban will hold. Meanwhile, we hope our example spreads like a contagion throughout the rest of the state. It could be more than likely, because for years now, political analysts have considered San Benito a “bellwether” county -- as San Benito goes, so does the state. We’re happy to set this example.

Kate Woods is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a former journalist and author of an environmental memoir, “Quicksilver Chronicles.” She lives in the now-defunct mercury-mining town of New Idria, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds