Update October 10th: Fracking bans are on the November ballots in Mendocino, San Benito and Santa Barbara Counties. Butte County voters could see a measure on the 2016 ballot.

Original Post, July 14th: Opponents of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — have pushed for a statewide moratorium on the controversial oil production technique. With those efforts stalled in the state legislature, activists are taking the fight to the county level.

Copying tactics that have worked in Colorado and New York, activists have qualified November ballot measures that would ban fracking in two counties and possibly others, trying a piecemeal approach to banning fracking in the state.

Video reported by Gabriela Quirós and Lauren Sommer, who narrates.

Oil companies use fracking to squeeze more oil out of rocks. Water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected underground at high pressure to create tiny fractures. The sand props open the cracks, so oil can flow out.

California legislators have debated a moratorium on fracking for the past four years, but the bills have repeatedly failed.

San Benito County Qualifies First

In a parking lot in San Juan Bautista, an hour south of San Jose, volunteers paint signs that read, “Protect our water. Ban fracking in San Benito County.”

“We collected enough signatures to qualify in 14 days which was maybe a state record,” says Andy Hsia-Coron of San Benito Rising, the group that’s rallying support for a fracking ban on San Benito County’s November ballot.

The ballot measure is largely pre-emptive. While San Benito County has a handful of oil wells in production, oil companies haven’t reported using fracking there.

“And we don’t want you to frack in San Benito County,” Hsia-Coron says. “We know this a county with a lot of oil potential.”

Hisa-Coron says his group is collaborating with activists across the country. Cities in Colorado and New York have banned fracking over concerns about groundwater contamination and land impacts.

Bigger Fight in Santa Barbara

“We see a battle for sure, but we also see a great opportunity,” says Rebecca Claassen of the Santa Barbara County Water Guardians, a volunteer group that’s put a measure on the local ballot to ban fracking on unincorporated land in the county.

Claassen says the legacy of Santa Barbara’s 1969 oil spill came up often as her group gathered 20,000 signatures for measure.

“Home of the first major oil spill in the United States,” she says. “In ’69, there were hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil pouring into the ocean and washing up on these beaches here.”

Also fueling support for the ban are economic concerns. “We have a lot of agriculture and tourism that both depend on clean water,” Claassen says, “and so the risks of water contamination really resonated with most everyone.”

Claasen’s group is facing an uphill battle, because Santa Barbara’s oil industry is much larger than San Benito’s. When the measure came up at county supervisors meeting, industry workers turned out in force with concerns about their jobs.

Banning More Than Fracking

“It’s attempting to outlaw all methods of oil extraction, not only fracking, but a number of other means of well stimulating,” says Armen Nahabedian of Citadel Exploration, a company that develops oil projects. “It is an absolute anti-hydrocarbon initiative.”

On a recent morning, Nahabedian is meeting with rancher Skip Ramsey about putting an oil well on his land outside of San Ardo, an hour south of Salinas.

Armen Nahabedian of Citadel Exploration talks with rancher Skip Ramsey about an oil project. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)
Armen Nahabedian of Citadel Exploration (right) talks with rancher Skip Ramsey about an oil project. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

The drought has hit Ramsey’s ranch hard, drying up feed for his cattle months sooner than expected. He says royalty payments from an oil well would go a long way for his family and his ranch. “To just support college educations,” he says, “and I’d like to increase my water capability to raise more feed for my cattle.”

Nahabedian says if the San Benito measure passes, it could stand in the way of deals like this one. “It’s difficult to make the same sort of offers to landowners in this area with this sort of uncertainty hanging the balance,” he says.

Nahabedian’s company doesn’t use fracking, but it does use another oil extraction technique that the initiatives would ban, called cyclic steam injection. Oil in California is heavy, so producers inject steam underground to loosen it up.

“Steam injection is an old technique,” he says. “We’ve been using it in the industry since the early 1960s. It’s not much different than cleaning a dirty engine block.”

About 60 percent of oil produced in California is extracted with steam injection and similar methods, making it more common than fracking. Nahabedian says banning steam injection would mean the state’s refineries would have to look at importing oil from outside the state.

“I say very simply — and some people say very crudely — that you can drill for it or you can kill for it, but that’s just the truth,” he says. “I’m a veteran from Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I have a firm belief that it’s our social responsibility and our civil responsibility to become a domestic producer that’s totally independent of foreign oil supply.”

About 60 percent of oil pumped in California uses steam injection or similar methods, something the ballot measures seek to ban. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)
About 60 percent of oil pumped in California is produced with steam injection or similar methods, which would also be banned under the ballot measures. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

“It would hurt oil production in our state, particularly in regions that are more economically depressed like the Central Valley,” says Sabrina Lockheart of Californians for Energy Independence, an advocacy group that’s funded in part by the oil industry and is fighting the local fracking bans.

California regulators are currently drafting new regulations for fracking, ones that the oil industry says are more than enough to ensure fracking is done safely.

“They’re the strongest regulations in the country as it relates to fracking,” Lockheart says. “It includes conducting a science-based study, disclosure of the chemicals used, monitoring protected groundwater and prior notification of surrounding landowners.”

Activists like Andy Hsia-Coron don’t believe those regulations go far enough.

“We figure that if we pass these initiatives in November,” he says, “that dozens of counties will be filing their initiatives and it can even be done a city level.”

In May, Santa Cruz County supervisors voted to pass a fracking ban. Voters in San Benito and Santa Barbara counties will vote on bans in November. Activists in Butte and Mendocino counties are still working to qualify ballot measures.

Anti-Fracking Activists in California Take Fight to County Ballots 10 October,2014Lauren Sommer

  • katewoods

    Kill or Drill? Water is for Farming, not Fracking. And when that rancher’s water level drops to nothing because of those cyclic steam oil wells on his property, he won’t be able to water ANY cows, and his family won’t be able to drink the tainted water that’s left. But I guess his kids will go to college. His neighbors will have moved away.

  • deborah wianecki

    ‘You can drill for it or you can kill for it.’– Armen Nahabedian, Citadel ExplorationNo Armen. Your kill or drill sound bite slogan won’t work in San Benito County (or with grace anywhere else). What a disgusting idea. Go try to peddle that idea in Armenia or where your loved ones live and see what happens. It’s shameful that people like you will sell their soul and the lives of others for an overblown corporate salary. Go away! (Thanks, though, for again confirming that our military actions in the middle east were never for freedom or defense of our people but just a greedy strategy for the uber rich, military suppliers and contractors, big oil and their shareholders.)

    • James Brotherton

      As a veteran, I’d prefer you leave the military out of your emotional diatribe. It comes off as offensive, as does your assumption that the Citadel guy is not an American. I see you like to chastise others for name-calling and rhetoric, but you seem to be pretty good at it yourself. I think they have a name for that.

  • R B

    Fracking is used in Geothermal…. The only industry which will truly be hurt by these protests…. Way to go fracktavists

  • R B

    Next time some idiot says something about Fracking….Ask them if they really know what they are talking about. CHances are they do not. If California ends fracking they end any chance of Enhanced Geothermal expanding reservoirs for geothermal which can now operate at lower temps thanks to fracturing rock and injecting water.

    • deborah wianecki

      Already reduced to name calling R.B. when you can’t even offer up your name. Here we go… the know-it-all has entered the room…
      And what line of business are you in? Or is it your daddy? Or uncle?
      Geothermal can stand on it’s own merits without ‘enhancing’ it to try and suck every last drop of oil out.
      I’d rather drink clean water and eat fresh meat and vegetables, thank you very much, and have my kids/grand-kids (and yours) do the same, not just the future wealth holders who will also hold the fresh water reserves. There are already water wars going on in this world. People are already desperate.

      • R B

        Actually, Geothermal does not get the same subsidies as wind and solar even though it is renewable alternative.
        Actually, without enhancing the reservoir temperatures need to be higher which limits geothermals economic viability to geysers or hotspots.
        Actually, drinking water and eating vegitables doesn’t really have to do with powering your house which i assume is done off coal (most states the majority of power comes from COAL)
        Actually, most municipal water comes from formations in the ground they are called aquifers, there is no such thing as a pristine water since all water has TDS from the surrounding rock.
        Actually the bi-product of shooting water on hot rocks is steam….So the water goes back in to the system (see Water cycle)
        You don’t have to be a know it all to know these things. You just have to do a little research on the GOOGLES before jumping on bandwagons…. Deb, are you wearing a FREE WILLY shirt right now?

        • deborah wianecki

          Actually, your comments here and every where are quite obnoxious and not relevant to my comments. Not only do you seem to get off on calling folks against fracking idiots but nearly every one else on Discus not named R.B. I’m bowing out of your charade…

      • James Brotherton

        Unless you have a geyser or hot spring in your yard, it is necessary to use hydraulic fracturing to access geothermal pockets, which has nothing to do with drilling for oil.

  • Shane

    “You can drill for it or you can kill for it ?” talk about a false alternative in so many multiple ways ! Hydraulic fracking as well as drilling for fossil fuels could hardly make the United States energy independent and therefore remove the incentive for yet new wars over fossil fuels ! The sales of natural gas are for export abroad so they could hardly help Americans be less reliant on foreign energy. All fracking and continuing dependence on fossil fuel is string out a few more days for the Big Oil junkie which corporations have reduced Americans to become. 97 billion gallons of water were contaminated on public land last year by fracking. Could we all ask of what use it is to squeeze out a few more days of dependence on fossil fuel when there is no water left to drink or farm ? Everyone knows that solar based energies are the key to ending dependence upon foreign energies and therefore entanglement in new wars. With the breakthroughs in solar technologies, it is now beyond question that any more $$$ wasted on drilling is just feeding the old Sinclair dinosaur pointlessly – until we in turn become extinct, dying first from dehydration !

    • tom411

      Let’s get some facts straight here.
      1. The US is now the world’s largest producer of oil, largely as a result of the technology of hydraulic fracturing. Most government estimates project that the US may one day become energy independent again.
      2. As a Californian, you might want to consider that 90% of the natural gas used in California is imported. California generated 43% of its electricity in 2012 from natural gas. You probably don’t realize that natural gas is also used to pump your water since the single largest electricity user in California is the State Water Project. At present, and for many years, the US imports far more natural gas than it exports. Overall, the US consumes more natural gas than it currently produces.
      3. I don’t know where you got that statistic about 97 billion gallons of water being contaminated on public land. The EPA certainly does not agree with you, as they have reported zero water contamination on public land from hydraulic fracturing. Did you just make that figure up?
      4. When solar is ready to replace oil and gas, it will. Saying “it is beyond question” is simply hyperbole and there are no facts to support you on this. Right now I am willing to bet you could not live without oil and gas. You need it to generate electricity, to pave your roads, to waterproof your roof, to make your tires, to provide your electronics, and to make pharmaceuticals. But I suppose your next computer will be build entirely of materialized solar energy, made by unicorns?

      • katewoods

        The EPA stays OUT of the frack fight, because they have been told so by the administration… and Big Oil and Gas, so NO, they won’t report on the contamination. Just google NEWS headlines on fracking contamination throughout this nation, the number of livestock killed by fracked wastewater and methane, the number of people hospitalized by the “mystery” illnesses of body rashes, nosebleeds, pulmonary failure and ambulatory breakdown.

      • tony

        More like Fiction straight here!

        1. completely debatable, once the oil is gone then where does this leave us? You said facts and then #1 you end with a estimate, are estimates fact now?

        2. Complete utter BS wait 90% of the gas imported you just stated above that the US was largest producer??? And that most factual esimates see the US as the becoming energy independent again, well until the oil runs out again…

        3. Completely wrong huh http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/01/05/some-states-confirm-water-pollution-from-drilling/4328859/ then of course there is this from tons of Cali news feeds http://www.desmogblog.com/2014/10/07/central-california-aquifers-contaminated-billions-gallons-fracking-wastewater But I would put my trust in some would be internet poster instead of actual news firms right?

        4. Oh and of course you closed with a shot at renewable sources of fuel which makes it all worth the read also sheds some light on your mentality because if don’t look past drilling or the facts like you will run out of oil and gas eventually then what is the picture you are painting here that we can drill and run off gas and oil infinitely?

  • Gill

    Check out the song “What The Frack!” by singer-songwriter Bill McIver, from northern California. The song can be listened to and downloaded for free at his website http://www.billmciver.org/music

    “What the frack, we want our water back!
    She asked me for a light and so I turned on my tap
    What the frack, we want our water back!”

  • mariancruz

    I agree, Deb!

  • tony

    Armen Nahabedian, president and CEO of Citadel Exploration, that had this to say regarding the anti-fracking movement: “In a fair world, these people would be dragged out in the courtyard and dealt with accordingly.”


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs – all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor