Sara Rubin here, thinking about what we cannot see in South Monterey County. On the surface, San Ardo is a place in South County where agricultural fields of the Salinas Valley meet the rolling hills of the Gabilan Mountains. Under the surface, the San Ardo Field is roughly a 6-by-2.5-mile area comprising some 4,200 acres of the oil-rich Lombardi Sands and Aurignac Sands formations, more than 1,800 feet underground. Since it was discovered in 1947, the San Ardo Field has produced more than 2 billion barrels of oil. It is the eighth-most productive oilfield in California.
Oil industry representatives estimate they can recover another 850 million barrels of oil from San Ardo over the next 100 years. That is, if they are allowed to continue with the business of drilling as usual.
In 2016, Monterey County voters delivered a clear message at the ballot box: With 56 percent of the vote, the citizen ballot initiative Measure Z passed, banning fracking, new oil wells and wastewater injection. While fracking is not a practice in use in Monterey County’s oilfields (due to the geology), without the ability to drill new wells and inject wastewater, the industry cannot operate as it has since the 1950s. Despite the passage of Measure Z, the industry has argued (and prevailed) in court battles as to whether those provisions of the ballot measure are permissible. Operators Aera, Chevron, Eagle Petroleum and Trio Petroleum, as well as private property owners who earn royalties from those operators, sued to challenge Measure Z. In 2018, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills upheld the fracking ban, but overturned the rest, enabling the oil industry to continue operating. The group behind the ballot measure, Protect Monterey County, appealed and lost in 2021. They petitioned again to the California Supreme Court.
Now, six-and-a-half years after voters delivered a resounding no to continued oil operations in Monterey County, the state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in the case at 1:30pm tomorrow, May 25.
(The hearing is remote, and Protect Monterey County will livestream it and host rallies starting at noon outside the county government building at 168 W. Alisal St., Salinas and in the Peace and Justice Center at 1354 Fremont Blvd., Seaside.)
“We’re very excited—this is what we’ve been waiting for,” says Laura Solorio, one of the architects of the measure and president of Protect Monterey County. “Measure Z is still alive.”
One of the oil industry contentions is that proponents of the measure misled voters, emphasizing the fracking ban alone. Solorio says whatever happens at court, the organizing effort will be remembered as a success, in large part because of extensive conversations advocates had with voters. “This was not a two-minute conversation, it was often a 15-minute conversation. It was an education about oil production,” she says.
But what the Supreme Court will weigh is less likely to be about what voters intended than it is to be about technicalities. Specifically at issue is California’s Public Resources Code section 3106, which grants authority to the state when it comes to oil operations. The California Constitution grants local jurisdictions to make policy, so long as that policy is “not in conflict with general laws.”
According to attorney Edward Shield Renwick, who represents 80-plus South County property owners who collect royalties from oil operations on their land, that’s the rub.
“The law is the law and the state Constitution is the state Constitution,” he says. “Counties have no power to regulate on statewide matters—only local matters.”
While Monterey County itself has become just a bystander in this case—the county declined to participate in the appeal process, leaving Protect Monterey County on its own—other local government jurisdictions have taken a strong interest. The League of California Cities, State Association of Counties and Los Angeles County filed a brief in support of Protect Monterey County. A loss for Protect Monterey County, they argue in a court brief, “would undermine well-settled legal principles, create confusion and litigation risk, and chill rightful exercises of local authority.”
If the state Supreme Court does uphold Measure Z, attorneys say a separate legal matter will likely follow as to “takings,” and how much property owners and oil operators would be entitled to receive as far as damages.
Of course, the court hearing will likely be about some combination of these things—legal definitions over technical matters (where state and local decision-making begin and end) and big ideas about the taking of property. It is less likely to be about the thing voters actually considered, which is the big picture of whether oil extraction should continue to hold a place in our energy economy.
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