Why should Kern County worry about an incredibly ill-conceived anti-oil measure passed in Monterey County last year?
Because bad ideas are like zombies, they just keep coming until a cheerleader cuts their heads off with a chainsaw. (It’s a thing, go ask a teenager.)
Anyhow, there are so many reasons to shake your head at the purported anti-fracking initiative known as Measure Z that it’s hard to pick just one. (Wells in Monterey County aren’t fracked, to start with.)
But how about that the measure strips people of their property rights?
Say you inherited a small bit of land near the San Ardo oil field in southern Monterey County.
It’s not really worth much.
Then someone discovers it’s rich with oil and you’re lucky enough to own the mineral rights.
Boom! You’re Jed Clampett — swimming pools and movie stars, right?
Because Measure Z didn’t just ban wastewater disposal, hydraulic fracturing and other enhanced oil recovery techniques, it also banned any new oil and gas wells.
So, those mineral rights you own are worthless.
Monterey voters might as well have walked into your house and smashed your TV.
Activists like to paint these anti-oil measures as the environment versus “big oil.”
But there’s a lot more to it.
And Monterey County is about to get an earful from the more than 70 royalty owners who, through the California chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners, or NARO, joined Chevron and Aera Oil in suing Monterey to scrap Measure Z.
“Kern County should pay attention because this is the first time a measure like this has passed in a significant oil producing county,” said Ed Renwick, vice president of the California NARO chapter. “Measure Z backers have been all over the state trying to pass similar measures. This isn’t something that just sprang up locally.
“And if it survives this court challenge, you’re likely to see something similar in Kern County.”
It’s highly doubtful such a measure could pass here.
But that’s not what worries local royalty owner Paul Hacker.
“It’s the state,” he said. “If the Legislature thinks a majority of people want to ban fracking or drilling, I could see it happening.”
Hacker is a geologist who obtained his royalty share as payment for consulting work.
He’s one of hundreds of thousands of “little guys,” as he calls them, who have bits and pieces of oil wells throughout the state.
Hacker’s royalties accrue from a scattering of wells in the South Belridge field, which is historic as it was originally developed by Clarence Berry, of Berry Petroleum, in 1923.
When the price of oil was up around $100 a barrel, Hacker’s royalty checks were a nice supplement.
After the price crashed, his checks dwindled and his consulting work dropped to nothing.
He took work as an Uber driver to bring in more cash flow.
“In this state, who do you go to for help?” he said. “It’s so one-sided, stacked against us ‘filthy rich’ oil people.”
Hacker, like the other local royalty owners I spoke with, hope NARO can beat back Measure Z in court.
Renwick said the NARO lawsuit challenges Measure Z on a number of fronts but following are the major complaints:
- Monterey County doesn’t have jurisdiction to dictate downhole activities (i.e., whether a well is fracked) because that authority rests with the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
- Government can’t restrict private property rights without a valid public purpose. Though Measure Z proponents claim it protects water, there hasn’t been any instance of drinking water contamination. And existing regulations already require oil operations to protect water.
- Government can’t take property without paying for it. Measure Z proponents claim oil operations can continue but without the ability to dispose of wastewater pumping will have to cease. And without new replacement wells, oil field productivity will decline.
Ultimately, Renwick predicted, the final decision will come from a higher court, perhaps even the U.S. Supreme Court, because both sides know this fight goes beyond Measure Z.
It’s about whether oil production in California should continue.
“People in Kern County need to worry because this is a preview of coming attractions,” Renwick said.
Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt has been following Measure Z, and other measures like it, and agreed with Hacker that if the anti-oil folks get enough traction, they’re likely to go back to the Legislature for another attempt at a statewide ban, at least on fracking.
“And that would put Kern County out of business,” she said.
Otherwise, she said, almost every land-use-planning-by-initiative attempt she’s seen since the 1980s has been disastrous.
“When you set land use restrictions through the voters, you have to go back to the voters to change anything,” she said.
That creates an inflexible system that doesn’t respond to real-life economic and other changes.
“There’s no way we could have predicted that Kern County would get $35 billion in private, international investment dollars for renewable energy projects between 2009 and 2017,” she explained. “What if voters had decided they didn’t want renewables in eastern Kern County back in 2006 and banned that? Where would we be?”
Aside from that, she said, Measure Z is just weird.
“They don’t have fracking in Monterey County,” she said. “It’d be like Kern voters passing a law that says we want more beach access locally, when we don’t have any beaches here.”