Think of California's Santa Barbara County and you might picture the area's famous beaches or resorts and wineries. But in the northern reaches of the vast county, oil production has been a major contributor to the economy for almost a century.
So it's no surprise that the oil industry there is feverishly organizing to fight a local ballot initiative — Measure P — that would ban controversial drilling methods such as hydraulic fracturing. What is turning heads, however, is the sheer volume of money flooding into this local race, mainly from large oil companies.
To date, firms such as Chevron and industry groups have chipped in more than $7 million to a campaign to defeat Measure P and a similar proposal farther up the California coast in San Benito County. That compares with just under $300,000 spent so far by the environmental groups that support the initiative and organized to get it on the local ballot.
Jim Byrne, spokesman for the "No on Measure P" campaign, is unapologetic about oil companies spending as much as they are.
"If I owned a business, I would want to do anything in my possibility to save that business," he says.
Byrne says Measure P would effectively shut down all new drilling operations in Santa Barbara County. There isn't even any "fracking" going on there right now — the industry says it doesn't work given the geology. But a process called steam injection is currently widely in use. That and other so-called "high intensity" drilling processes would be banned if the measure is approved by voters next month.
"They go after methods that have been utilized safely, responsibly and under the most stringent regulations for the last 50 years," Byrne says.
But supporters like to point out that there are provisions in the measure to protect existing drilling operations in the county. There are currently just over 1,100 active wells, mainly clustered in the northern part of the county.
Rancher Chris Wrather, a spokesman for the "Yes on Measure P" campaign, likens the proposal to an insurance policy.
"It will provide protection for the future, and that's what we really want," Wrather says.
After all, there's talk that California's Monterey Shale formation — which extends into Santa Barbara County — could be the site of the next North Dakota-type boom. Wrather's group is worried that a sharp rise in drilling could threaten the area's drought-stressed water supply.
Another worry, says Wrather, is the fact that supporters are being outspent 23 to 1.
"It really has the feel of trying to buy this election," he says.
In this post-Citizens United world, there's a lot more scrutiny on money in politics, especially when there are well-organized charges that it could be influencing small, local races like this one. But legal experts like professor Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine Law School caution against tying all the spending in the Measure P race to a broader national trend.
Hasen, for one, says he's not surprised about all the spending by the opposition.
"There's much more at stake in terms of the financial interest of those who would engage in oil drilling in this area than the amount that's being spent on the election," says Hasen, who also hosts a popular campaign finance blog.
Indeed, the stakes are high. If Measure P passes — or fails — it could set a precedent for other counties across California, and possibly even the country.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As this Tuesday's election approaches, we've been taking a tour of some notable races, and this morning, a ballot initiative in Santa Barbara County, California. It is called Measure P, and it asks voters to ban some oil and gas drilling methods, such as fracking. The oil industry wants to defeat the measure. They've spent $7 million trying. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Here's a sample of what $7 million sounds like.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When the Santa Barbara County deputy sheriffs heard about Measure P, we looked into the facts, and the facts are troubling.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As an environmentalist and geologist, I am asking you to not be fooled by Measure P.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).
CHRIS WRATHER: We're bombarded with no on Measure P messages, whether they be on the air or, you know, driving down the road. I mean, it's overwhelming.
SIEGLER: Chris Wrather is with the group Yes on Measure P that's backing the initiative to ban fracking and other so-called high-intensity drilling processes. He raises horses and cattle in northern Santa Barbara County. This isn't the Santa Barbara of pristine beaches and fancy resorts you might be picturing. This part of the county is dotted with small ranches, vineyards and oil wells, about 1,100 of them. Wrather says Measure P is an insurance policy.
WRATHER: You know, it will provide protection for the future, and that's really what we want.
SIEGLER: See, there's talk that California's Monterey shale formation, which extends into his county, could be the next North Dakota. And Wrather is worried that fracking and other drilling technologies could contaminate the county's already drought-stressed water supply. His other worry is that his group is being outspent 23 to 1 in the campaign.
WRATHER: I'm hoping it'll backfire because it really has the feel of trying to buy this election.
JIM BYRNE: I'm sorry. That's just a political gain.
SIEGLER: Jim Byrne is the spokesman for No on Measure P.
BYRNE: If I owned a business, I would want to do anything in my possibility to save that business.
SIEGLER: Byrne says Measure P could effectively shut down all new drilling operations in Santa Barbara County. There's no fracking currently going on in the county. The industry says it doesn't work given the geology. But a process called steam injection is widely used, and that would also be banned if the initiative passes.
BYRNE: They go after methods that have been utilized safely, responsibly and under the most stringent regulations for the last 50 years. And they're calling it new and high-intensity. It's just a ruse.
SIEGLER: In these post-Citizens United times, there's a lot more scrutiny on the role of money in politics. But there have actually been no spending limits on ballot measures since the 1980s. Rick Hasen is a UC Irvine law professor who also hosts a popular campaign finance blog.
RICK HASEN: There's much more at stake in terms of financial interest of those who would engage in oil drilling in this area than the amount that's being spent on the election.
SIEGLER: Hasen is not sure all the spending in Santa Barbara is part of an upward trend in ballot measure races nationally, but what is clear is that the stakes are high. After all, if Measure P passes or fails, it could set a precedent for other counties across California and possibly the country. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.