Z Test

Supporters of Measure Z gathered outside of the Monterey courthouse on Nov. 15, 2017, day one of the trial. Key provisions of the measure were struck down.

Measure Z, a 2016 county ballot initiative that sought to ban fracking, wastewater injection and new oil and gas wells in Monterey County, and which 56 percent of voters approved, is not dead yet. On Jan. 26, the California Supreme Court agreed to a weigh in on a case to decide whether the initiative is preempted by state law.

This comes after the measure suffered two defeats in court, first in Monterey County Superior Court in 2017 (which nonetheless upheld the fracking ban in the initiative, because no fracking was occurring in the county), and then by Sixth District Court of Appeal in 2021, which upheld the lower court’s ruling that determined regulating methods for oil and gas development were under the purview of state law. That ruling did not address the initiative’s potential conflict with federal law.

Attorneys for Protect Monterey County, the activist group that brought the initiative, filed a petition to the state Supreme Court last November to hear the case, arguing that the lower courts’ opinions contravened a century of precedent of local governments having control of land-use decisions regarding oil and gas drilling operations.

According to Northern California legal magazine Plaintiff, the state Supreme Court agrees to take on only 5 percent or less of the cases submitted for review.

Why the court agreed to take on the case (or any case) is not something it makes public, but those advocating for it extended well beyond Monterey County. On Dec. 17, an attorney representing both the League of California Cities – an association of 479 cities – and the California State Association of Counties, a nonprofit representing the state’s 58 counties, sent a letter outlining why the court should take up the case, arguing that it unsettled a long-standing precedent of local governments’ power to protect the health and safety of its residents.

Attorneys for Santa Clara County sent a similar letter, which also asked the court for clarification of the law, arguing that the appellate court opinion upset precedent and clouded matters regarding local land-use decisions.

(Perhaps coincidentally, the same day the Supreme Court announced they would take on the case, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban new oil and gas wells within the city, and to phase out existing wells within five years. There are currently more than 1,000 within city limits.)

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with Center for Biological Diversity and part of the team representing Protect Monterey County, feels confident the state Supreme Court will agree with his team that the lower courts got it wrong, and that it “will restore the balance of state and local government that’s existed for a century over oil and gas [development].”

Theodore Boutrous, the lead attorney on the case for Chevron USA Inc., and who argued before the appellate court, writes by email, “Chevron is confident that the California Supreme Court will come to the same, reasoned conclusion [as the lower courts], recognizing the state’s authority and responsibility to regulate these matters of statewide importance.”

Whatever happens, it will likely take awhile: Kretzmann does not expect a hearing on the case in this calendar year.

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