Local Spin

I’ve found that newspaper readers generally fall into two categories. There are the type that grouse privately when you write something they don’t agree with, and then there are Weekly readers.

When I wrote about the anti-fracking initiative known as Measure Z, and the challenges its proponents will face leading up to the November election, it was as if I had collected a few baby sea otters from Monterey Bay, dunked them in oil and called it an act of performance art.

Some of you gentle readers emailed, others called, a few texted and some posted on my Facebook wall, all with messages on the general theme, “How could you?”

The biggest complaint: In my last Z piece, I seemed to favor the side of Big Oil and I didn’t analyze the issue thoroughly. In retrospect, I have to agree with that sentiment.

A few days after I heard that message loud and clear, I sat down with James Eggleston, a longtime civil rights attorney and frontman for Protect Monterey County, the group behind Yes on Z. Why is a civil rights attorney fronting an anti-fracking measure?

Because, he says, Z is a matter of civil and environmental justice. Oil companies that explore and pump in South County are seeking an exemption allowing them to inject toxic waste into the aquifer – the same aquifer that lies under the entire Salinas Valley and on which the $4 billion local agricultural industry depends. Measure Z seeks to ban such wastewater injections five years after it passes, and to hold the oil companies accountable for the cost of cleaning the water.

Big Oil’s argument (when you get past the sky-is-falling bluster) is that even if they use existing technology to clean 100 percent of the water, a toxic residue will still remain – and if they can’t dispose of that waste by pumping it into the ground, they’ll have to stop drilling altogether. The fact that the oil industry already cleans 25 percent of the water in South County isn’t a charitable exercise, Eggleston says – it’s a cost of production.

“Who is going to bear the risk and expense of wastewater injection? Should it be the people of Monterey County or the oil producers who create the wastewater?” Eggleston asks. “We’re talking about a very identifiable cost.” The companies aren’t claiming it’s too costly – they just say it’s going to shut down the industry.

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Yes on Z still has a real hurdle still to overcome before November, and that hurdle is one of marketing and messaging – especially when the No on Z camp jukes the statistics and obfuscates the truth. Neither of Monterey County’s congressional candidates seemed to get it, as evidenced by the public debate held by the Weekly at The Press Club on Sept. 19. GOP candidate Casey Lucius says she won’t support Z due to nebulously defined unintended consequences; Dem candidate Jimmy Panetta says he’s opposed to fracking but needs to study the issue more before making a decision.

So here’s a head start on that homework: While the No on Z campaign claims close to 1,000 jobs will be lost if Z passes, the number of jobs in mining and oil exploration in the county is actually 267, according to the Monterey County Economic Forecast. And that 267 hits only if the oil industry refuses to clean up after itself and pulls the plug entirely. The specifics of Measure Z seem to show that’s an idle threat. Measure Z clearly spells out that the industry can continue to extract oil from existing wells, they can continue to use cyclic steaming to increase extraction and even drill horizontally to reach new sources. They just can’t drill new wells, and they have to treat the wastewater.

Meanwhile, the oil industry talks about the tax dollars that will be lost, and trots out the loss to schools (think of the children!) if Z passes. In reality, both sides agree that oil is responsible for about $8 million in revenue to the county’s $1.4 billion budget. It’s no drop in the bucket, but again, it’s not the end of the world either, even if the industry makes good on its threat to decamp from Monterey County altogether.

The real scare, Eggleston says, is this: “If we succeed, oil companies are very afraid it will set a precedent for other areas.”

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