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What oil drilling measures on June primary would do in Ventura County


As oil companies tell it, passage of measures A and B on the June 7 ballot would end all oil and gas production in Ventura County along with thousands of jobs.

The environmental group leading the “yes” campaign warns that the drilling could contaminate drinking and irrigation water if the oil interests prevail in their multimillion-dollar campaign.

Campaign slogans implore voters to choose between two imperatives: “Stop the Energy Shutdown” vs. “Protect Water.”

The measures, however, are more complex and less sweeping than the roadside signs suggest:

  • The rules would only apply to new projects such as drilling or deepening wells.
  • They would primarily affect operations under county permits issued from 1948 through 1950 with no environmental impact reviews — permits governing roughly 60% of the estimated 4,000 wells in the county.
  • Some, if not most, of these are “antiquated permits” that have no expiration dates or limits on the number of wells and little analysis of what additional drilling would mean for local air and water quality.
  •  The other 40% of wells operate under more recent permits more likely subject to modern environmental review, similar to what the ballot measures would require.
  • The local League of Women Voters said the proponents’ argument that the measures would better protect water and community health is “reasonable” but “speculative.”

The Star interviewed several experts, analyzed the county’s permit inventory and dug through dozens of boxes of documents tracing the county’s oil development back almost 75 years.

The old permits are typically just two or three pages listing basic safety and sanitation requirements. Some are typed on fragile onion skin paper. Some are copies made on mimeograph machines.

A 1974 memo in Ventura County's oil permit files notes the lack of drilling restrictions.

“When I first heard of it decades ago, I went, this isn’t right,” said Steve Bennett, a former county supervisor who spearheaded the move to update the antiquated permits. “When I was told you couldn’t do anything about it, I thought we should at least try it.”

Oil and gas development is the only known industry still operating under decades-old permits with outdated standards, county planners said.

The permits are held by some of the industry’s biggest players, including Aera Energy, which has largely funded the $8.2 million campaign to defeat the measures.

Signs opposing the oil measures are posted at Aera Energy's facility in the Ventura area.

The company, which is jointly owned by affiliates of ExxonMobil and Shell, has contributed $7.4 million to the effort. Oil interests have outraised the other side by more than 10 to 1 in what has become the costliest ballot measure in county history.

Aera officials declined to answer questions on the permits or why they are investing heavily in the campaign. They referred questions to the campaign spokesman, Ben Oakley of the Western States Petroleum Association, who said the funds help get their message to the voters.



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