Initiative delayed

Butte County Board of Supervisors puts off fracking initiative

Joni Stellar, head of Frack Free Butte County, watches as the supervisors discuss the fracking ballot initiative.

Joni Stellar, head of Frack Free Butte County, watches as the supervisors discuss the fracking ballot initiative.

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Learn more about Frack Free Butte County at

To frack or not to frack, that was the question. And it still is. After a more than two-hour meeting on the subject Tuesday (July 29), the Butte County Board of Supervisors voted to not place an initiative on the November general election ballot that would ban hydraulic fracturing—the extraction of natural gas and oil via the application of high-pressure, chemically treated water to break underground shale layers and set the sought-after commodities free.

The initiative did not get the nod, even though it had enough valid voter signatures to qualify. Instead, the board voted to call for a 30-day study by county staff to see if the initiative might result in litigation, harm property values, negatively impact existing businesses or not outlaw some other nefarious use of underground wells. There is also some question as to how the ordinance will conform with the recently passed state law regulating fracking.

County Counsel Bruce Alpert told the board he found the ordinance as drafted “troublesome.”

“It is not my purview to tell you how to vote,” he said, “but I see trouble ahead with how it was drafted.”

Back in April, the board voted to have county counsel look into drawing up an ordinance to ban fracking. Alpert said that his office had studied similar laws proposed in other counties including Santa Barbara, which has an 18-page ordinance Alpert said has much more detail than the Butte County ballot initiative.

“It’s important for me to give you this information,” he said. “This does not mean I’m pro or con [on fracking].”

The board had three choices: Adopt the ordinance without making changes; submit it to the voters at the next statewide election; or study it for 30 days to look for potential problems. That 30-day period excludes it from the Nov. 4 election because state law says the next election must take place more than 88 days after the board’s decision. (In other words, the 30-day study and a board decision would have to be completed by Aug. 8, which is just a week away.)

County Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs told the board that her staff had stayed in the office until 7 p.m. the night before verifying the signatures, of which 7,605 valid ones—or 10 percent of the number of registered voters in the Butte County 2010 General Election—were needed. They counted 7,975.

The next eligible election for the ordinance is June 2016, and barring the supervisors’ decision to adopt it on their own, that is when it will take place.

All of this doesn’t come without some controversy. The signatures for the initiative were handed in on June 5, but on June 16 Grubbs told the ban’s backers that the petition was invalid because it didn’t meet certain formatting requirements. Those imperfections were brought to her attention by a Sacramento law firm representing a pro-fracking organization called Californians for a Safe, Secure Energy Future. The matter went to court on July 23, and Butte County Superior Court Judge Robert Glusman ruled the initiative was legal and that the clerk’s office should move ahead with it.

More than 30 members of the audience addressed the board Tuesday, with about half urging that the matter be placed on the ballot as a way to protect the county’s underground water supply and the other half calling for the 30-day study and warning of property rights intrusions, loss of jobs and a drop in property values.

A man named John Busch, a Biggs councilman who said he was not speaking as an elected official, said he didn’t know enough about fracking to comment, but believes “in going forward with things that might supply us with cheaper energy.”

He said he thought the board had been “bombarded endlessly” by the anti-frackers and called for the 30 days of study.

The next speaker was James Smith, a walnut grower and general contractor who said he worked in Texas oil fields in 1980 and 1981, participating in both drilling and fracking.

“It’s a normal procedure,” he said. “Every well in Texas has been fracked. Why all this hysteria now?”

A woman named Jenny Smith said there is no fracking currently going on in Butte County and questioned the need for the ordinance. She also asked if she would be reimbursed should the government takes away her property rights.

Dave Garcia, a spokesman for the fracking ban, told the board it was needed to protect the county’s water supply and that studies show the practice leads to earthquakes. He also said a facility in south Butte County called the Wild Goose Storage Inc. has a wastewater injection well. The project is an underground natural gas storage facility that works with Pacific Gas & Electric.

Brian Hamman, who said he is Butte County-born and reared, is an attorney for the company and denied the accusations. He said the facility does not practice fracking and is simply a storage facility for natural gas. He said it does use gravel to free up underground gas reserves and filter the associated sand from rising with the gas, but does not use chemicals. Supervisor Doug Teeter also noted that Wild Goose was one of the county’s top property-tax payees. He said if the ban precluded Wild Goose from operating and it up and moved, the county would take a significant hit in property taxes revenue.

John Scott, a member of the Butte County Water Commission, read a report that said on July 7 state officials ordered the shutdown of “11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review of more than 100 others in the state’s drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking aquifers there.”

Scott told the board that banning fracking “is not a rush to judgment.”

Joni Stellar, organizer of Frack Free Butte County, noted that the court case had delayed the process and that outside interests were trying to derail the effort.

“A 30-day study would make no difference,” she said. “We’ve already given you the information. Allow the voters to look into it.”

Stellar said she could rebut every opposing view voiced at the meeting and that the study will not uncover any information that is not already known.

In the end, the board voted 4-1 to complete the study, with Supervisor Maureen Kirk as the lone dissenter. She said she just wanted to see the matter go to the voters.

County counsel will continue to work on an ordinance as the board instructed back in April. Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn said staff will reach out to Chico State professors to try to gain “nonpartisan experts” to provide unbiased information on fracking.