Judge Kills Misleading Rewrite of La Habra Heights Anti-Fracking Measure

Monday, January 05, 2015

Residents of tiny La Habra Heights (pop. 5,712) who fought for an anti-fracking measure on the March ballot were none too happy to find the ballot language conjured up at City Hall misrepresented it in an unappealing way.

Last week, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joanne O’Donnell agreed and said it must be changed.  

Proponents of the measure, meant to block Matrix Oil Company from drilling for oil using well-stimulation techniques on an 18-acre parcel owned by Southern California Gas Company, gathered enough signatures for consideration by the City Council in November. Fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sinkholes.   

Council members could have approved it or put it on the ballot. After settling on language recommended by the City Attorney, they chose a vote by the people.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box. The oil industry objected to the measure’s wording and sued on November 21, eight days after the council vote.

The City Council quickly hammered out a compromise that removed a reference to “high-intensity petroleum operations” and, more importantly, rewrote Measure A to “prohibit land use for any treatment of oil or gas wells that is designed to enhance production or recovery, any new oil and gas wells and reactivation of idle wells.”

Proponents wanted to ban fracking, acidization and other high-tech, well-stimulation techniques for just new wells. The measure was rewritten to make it a broader ban on all well-enhancements.  

Stephen A. Greig, director of governmental affairs for California Resources Corp., (formerly Occidental Petroleum), which has 141 wells in the city, badmouthed the original language to the Whittier Daily News, “It was very inflammatory language.”

The company liked the rewrite and the council passed it 4-1 on December 1.

But Measure A activists did not. La Habra Heights Oil Watch, Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit (pdf) to rewrite the rewrite and Judge O’Donnell saw it their way. She called the changes by the city “misleading” and “not a true and impartial statement of the purpose of the proposed measure.”

So, now that supporters of Measure A will have the language they want on the ballot, all they have to do is overcome the tsunami of money and advertising about to wash over their campaign. The Whittier Daily News reported last week that a political action committee representing oil companies had contributed $200,000 to defeat Measure A. Nobody in the tiny community could remember anyone ever spending more than $60,000. 

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Oil Companies Put Up $200,000 to Fight La Habra Heights Anti-Oil Measure (by Mike Sprague, Whittier Daily News)

Court Rejects Inaccurate & Misleading Language in La Habra Heights Fracking Ballot Initiative (Earthjustice)

La Habra Heights Anti-Oil Initiative Qualifies for 2015 Ballot (by Mike Sprague, Whittier Daily News)

City of La Habra Heights Ban on New Oil & Gas Wells and Fracking Initiative (Ballotpedia)  

Environmental Group Drops Whittier Drilling Opposition in Exchange for Cash (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

La Habra Heights Oil Watch v. Shauna Clark (Los Angeles County Superior Court) (pdf)

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