Ventura, CA – A group of grassroots and community activists launched a campaign in favor of Measures A and B, two ballot measures that would close a loophole in Ventura County allowing oil and gas companies to drill without environmental review using antiquated permits. In some cases, these permits were granted as far back as the 1930s. As of July 2021, 75 percent of the 4,037 active and idle wells in Ventura County were using these antiquated permits that never expire.
Community members have opposed these antiquated permits for years. In 2020, they won the protections they sought when the Ventura County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance closing the antiquated permit loophole and holding all new oil and gas drill operations to the same modern environmental standards as other industries. Three days after the vote, oil and gas interests — including Aera Energy — spent upwards of $1 million to undo the protections at the ballot. By January 2021, the committee had secured enough signatures to place the issue back on the ballot in the form of Measures A and B.
Food & Water Watch Central Coast Organizing Manager Tomás Rebecchi was one of the environmental advocates and Ventura residents leading the initial fight against the permit loophole.
“In Ventura County, there are more than 1,000 wells that are within a half mile of residents’ homes,” said Rebecchi. “And 60 percent of those oil wells are in Latino communities like ours. This creates a disproportionate burden of pollution shouldered by low income communities and communities of color. With these old permits, an oil company could drill or frack a well next to our homes with as little environmental review as building a gazebo or a shed.”
Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-37) served on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors from 2000 to 2020 and voted in favor of ending the use of antiquated permits.
“When I was elected to the Board of Supervisors back in 2000,” Bennett remembered. “I discovered a startling fact and that was the fact that back in the mid-century the oil companies used their tremendous influence…to win something that no other businesses were granted in Ventura County. And that was getting conditional use permits that were granted in perpetuity forever.”
Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie has worked in cultural resource management for 40 years and seen sacred sites subsumed by oil development. According to CEQA, developers are supposed to avoid sacred sites.
“But you can’t avoid them if you don’t know where they are,” Tumamait-Stenslie said, referencing the antiquated permits and lack of regulations. “We have for our Chumash people a lot of knowledge that just has gone away from us, lost through that mission period. And so there are sacred mountains that have gone unrecognized…sacred sites, burials that have probably all been impacted and will be impacted because there is no oversight.”
With a price tag of approximately $6 per signature and hundreds of thousands of signatures required to land a measure on the ballot, corporate interests have secured a foothold on direct democracy in California.
“The idea was to wrest power from the hands of the special interest groups that were dominating state politics in places like Sacramento,” said University of California at San Diego professor and Political Science Department Chair Thad Kousser. “Unfortunately, 100 years later we’ve all seen that direct democracy, like our representative government, is also vulnerable. We have unequal access to the ballot right now. It’s no longer the people’s process.”
“The idea of projects moving forward without rigorous requirements to explore, understand and avoid the worst consequences to the environment and communities ahead of time is simply not acceptable for any industry or company in this day and age,” said Hans Cole, Patagonia’s Director of Campaigns and Advocacy. “The state of California is a leader in enacting public policy that’s better for people, for water, for climate, for the planet. But we have a glaring loophole…in our ability to protect our environment right here in Ventura County.”
Ojai organic farmer Steve Sprinkel irrigates his crops from an aquifer maintained by surface water that percolates downward. “In the arid west, a drought should focus our attention on what is our primary need,” said Sprinkel. “Water is much more essential than oil. We can’t risk ruining our underground water resources for a short-term economic benefit.
Contact: Jessica Gable, (202) 683-2478, [email protected]