What are the consequences of California’s State Supreme Court ruling against Monterey County’s Measure Z?
First, some background. As Protect Monterey County puts it: “David beat Goliath on November 8, 2016 when 73,877 Monterey County voters passed Measure Z—the first citizens’ initiative to ban fracking and limit risky oil operations in a major oil-producing county of California. Big Oil spent $5.6 million to oppose Measure Z. Despite being outspent 18 to 1, our grassroots campaign won with 56% of the votes.” Then came the inevitable oil industry lawsuits. Chevron, Aera Energy (co-owned by ExxonMobil and Shell), and others filed legal challenges, which resulted in key parts of Measure Z being overturned by a trial court in late 2017. Protect Monterey County appealed that ruling, and the case was accepted by the state Supreme Court.
The State Supreme Court ruling came down on Thursday, August 3rd, upholding the previous one by the lower court. Activists in Monterey County and all over California registered that news like a gut punch.
For Monterey County, this means that Measure Z’s health and safety protections—a ban on fracking, waste water injection, and further oil and gas development—will not be enacted. Had the voters’ will been respected, Measure Z would have gone into effect on December 16, 2017. Now Monterey County residents will continue to be indefinitely exposed to oil industry pollution. But does this mean that local control over oil and gas production throughout the state is forever illegalized? Center for Biological Diversity attorney Hollin Kretzmann cautions that the ruling was narrowly focused on the specific language of Measure Z, and does not negatively impact existing (and pending) bans and land use regulations. His explanation is worth quoting in full:
The decision turns entirely on language specific to Measure Z, including language limiting wastewater injection. It finds that Public Resources Code section 3106(b), a state law passed in 1961 giving state regulators authority to approve certain oil production methods on a case-by-case basis, preempts Measure Z’s bans on wastewater injection and the drilling of new wells for specific purposes. The decision doesn’t affect other local oil ordinances or zoning restrictions. [See p. 15 of the ruling.] Because it relies on the state’s authority to approve or reject various oil extraction methods, the decision undercuts the oil industry’s argument in other cases that section 3106(b) limits the state’s ability to deny oil and gas permits. It’s unfortunate that a single sentence from a 1961 statute has prevented Measure Z’s lifesaving protections against dangerous oil drilling from taking effect.
Kretzmann adds, “One major concern is that the oil industry will now use this opinion to bully local governments into allowing dangerous operations at the expense of community health and safety.” But that would be more oil industry mendacity: the ruling actually preserves local zoning authority—not its opposite.
We are deeply heartened to learn that the city and county of Los Angeles are holding firm in their bans on new oil and gas drilling and plans to phase out existing 0perations. And the local take-away is that we in the Bay Area should hold firm, too.