Fractured finances

Butte County firms get big bucks to fight fracking ban

Fracking supporters gathered at the July 29 Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Fracking supporters gathered at the July 29 Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting.

photo by Tom Gascoyne

When Robin Cook addressed Butte County supervisors to ask for a 30-day study on a ballot initiative that would ban fracking, she talked convincingly about her concern for her father’s—and the county’s—finances.

“My family owns property that has a capped well,” she told supervisors at their July 29 meeting. “From what we can understand … this would be a taking of our property. The debate today is about the … petition coming before you and whether or not that language is bankruptcy language for this county. Nobody wants to see this county be lost in a big old mess of lawsuits.”

But Cook failed to mention that she has another interest in the matter: the firm she reportedly helps run with her husband, political strategist Josh Cook, has earned $37,500 providing consulting and other services to a Big Oil-funded group, Californians for Energy Independence. The payments to JFW Cook Corp. show up in campaign-finance disclosure reports made to the Secretary of State for the May-June period.

JFW Cook Corp. is Josh Cook’s firm, Cook Communications and Government Affairs. Listed as president on the firm’s website is Cook’s wife, Robinette Scott Cook. Josh Cook is a longtime local Republican consultant who’s worked with former U.S. Rep. Wally Herger, state Assemblyman Dan Logue and Supervisor Steve Lambert when he was a member the Paradise Town Council. He is currently chief of staff for Assemblyman Brian Dahle.

When contacted later, Robin Cook said her family has owned a gas well in Gridley for many years and she is concerned about losing the rights to extract its resource.

“It’s in our peach orchard,” she wrote in an email. “I work for the industry trying to protect our rights to safe and secure energy production.”

Another firm listed on the disclosure form is Public Square Partners LLC, which received $10,000 on May 29. The only listed member of that organization is David S. Reade, son-in-law of the late Assemblyman Bernie Richter and one-time chief of staff to former Assemblyman and current U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa.

Californians for Energy Independence still had $1.3 million in its coffers at the end of June. Contributions to the group had been made by a number of oil and gas companies, including Chevron, Vaquero Energy and Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas.

The campaign-finance reports show that the political action committee “Californians for Energy Independence, including Energy Producers” spent a total of $116,238 during May and June to stop the advancing ballot initiative.

During this period, initiative backers Frack-Free Butte County overcame a legal challenge—also financed by the committee—that questioned the petition’s phrasing, font size and bolding of certain passages. Butte County Superior Court Judge Robert Glusman ruled the petition complies with the state electoral code and ordered the county to move forward with the process.

On July 28, the County Clerk’s Office validated almost 8,000 signatures on the petition, enough to move it forward. But on July 29, the supervisors were faced with the sudden emergence of people who said they opposed the ban on fracking or immediate action on the ballot initiative.

Many of the people speaking against approval of the initiative asked for a 30-day study, leading anti-fracking activists to suspect that the opposition had been orchestrated by well-financed opponents.

Frack-Free Butte County Treasurer Joni Stellar, who went to court pro per to successfully stave off the legal challenge from a San Rafael law firm, was incensed. “Nobody asked for a study until this 11th hour,” Stellar said. “It’s a delay tactic.”

The supervisors voted 4-1 to take the initiative under study for 30 days, making it impossible to approve it in time to appear on the November ballot. It had to be approved no fewer than 88 days before the election, making the deadline Aug. 8. Now Butte County citizens won’t vote on the matter until 2016 unless there is a special state election to which the matter could be added. County counsel is continuing to work on a fracking-control ordinance of its own, as directed by a 4-1 supervisor vote in April.

Earlier on July 29, Robin Cook assumed the role of spokeswoman for an unusual protest outside supervisor chambers. A number of people hoisted signs championing private-property rights and opposing the ballot initiative. They pointed reporters to Robin Cook, who said a 30-day study would ensure “good policy.”

Cook then told supervisors that the anti-fracking activists should have waited for the county to draft its ordinance, and pointed out that County Counsel Bruce Alpert had reservations about language in the citizen-drafted ordinance.

“I have put blood, sweat and tears into my dad’s land, and I don’t want to see us put something on the ballot that will bankrupt us,” Cook said.

This story was written in collaboration with the online magazine ChicoSol. For more reporting, visit ChicoSol’s fracking blog “The Frog” at