Goliath goes to court

Big Oil-funded legal challenge may kill anti-fracking initiative on a technicality

On June 5, Frack-Free Butte County members celebrated submitting a petition signed by more than 10,000 citizens.

On June 5, Frack-Free Butte County members celebrated submitting a petition signed by more than 10,000 citizens.

photo courtesy of Frack-Free Butte County

“The people of Butte County ordain” are words that local fractivists are not likely to soon forget. The absence of that six-word phrase, coupled with the lack of some bold typeface, may be enough to kill a grassroots effort to put the future of local hydraulic fracturing in the hands of Butte County voters.

On June 16, County Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs sent a letter informing members of Frack-Free Butte County (FFBC) that the petition filed to put a fracking ban on the November ballot—signed by more than 10,000 county residents—was rejected due to “various facial defects.” Specifically, the petition failed to include a mandatory “enacting clause” and didn’t meet “formatting requirements regarding bold face type,” which violates Elections Codes 9124 and 9105, respectively.

Grubbs’ letter to the petition’s proponents explained that, after conferring with county counsel, she agreed the document didn’t pass muster. She also said she didn’t have the discretion to waive the defects, which must be done through court proceedings.

Issues with the petition were first brought to Grubbs’ attention in a complaint filed June 9 by Sacramento-based law firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni LLP, on behalf of Californians for a Safe, Secure Energy Coalition. The coalition represents dozens of California businesses, community agencies and other groups opposed to bans and strict regulatory measures on the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), in which water and chemicals are forced into the earth to remove oils and natural gas from shale. Several oil and energy companies, including the Western States Petroleum Association, are also part of the coalition.

“We have collected over 10,000 signatures and a lot of people have put a lot of effort into this,” said FFBC spokesman Dave Garcia in a phone interview. “But then we have a powerful law firm from Sacramento funded by Big Oil obstructing and railroading the democratic process, and our members are outraged by that.

“We understand Candace Grubbs is doing her job, but we feel the county should honor the voice of the people and allow this to go forward.”

Garcia said the group takes some responsibility for the petition being sent back: “We’re a grassroots organization and have never [attempted a ballot initiative] before, and it was our decision to try to do this among ourselves, and locally. That appears to have been a bad decision, because we didn’t get everything right.

“On the other hand, these are superficial problems, and inconsequential compared to the actual language of the initiative, which is sound.”

Garcia said that, as of Tuesday (June 24), the group was weighing its options on how to proceed. He said the FFBC’s steering committee would decide in the next few days whether to file a writ with the court to have the requirements waived, but fears a legal battle with deep-pocketed adversaries.

“Filing the writ doesn’t mean the judge will side with us, and it’s a very expensive process,” Garcia said. “Since the beginning, we had almost no money whatsoever, and people on the steering committee took money from their own wallets to put into the kitty to be able to run this campaign.”

By comparison, the initiative’s adversaries are a proverbial Goliath to the FFBC’s David. According to a Feb. 3, 2014, article in the Sacramento Business Journal, Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni LLP is the third largest recipient of lobby dollars in the state, raking in $5.1 million last year. The same article notes the Western States Petroleum Association was the top spender of lobby dollars in California in 2013, with $4.7 million spent on lobbying activities.

Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for Californians for a Safe, Secure Energy Coalition, said her organization opposes bans because fracking can help lead the nation away from dependence on foreign oil and is a boon to the state’s economy. Sacramento-based Lockhart also provided, and is listed as the contact on, a press release issued June 5 by Butte Citizens Against Higher Energy, a local extension of the statewide pro-fracking coalition. Lockhart said that press release, which claims the Butte County ban would drive up energy costs and put jobs in jeopardy, was released in response to the petition being filed.

Garcia noted that the county Board of Supervisors already has voted 4-1 to move toward a fracking ban, and said his group may focus its efforts in that direction.

“[The supervisors] could adopt our initiative, draft their own initiative, or take other courses of action to stop fracking from happening here,” Garcia said. “It’s apparent that both citizens and elected officials alike are very concerned about this issue, so either way, we aren’t giving up.”