On Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 4, three counties in California presented voters with measures to ban hydraulic fracturing and other forms of intensive oil and gas operations.  Voters in Santa Barbara County rejected the measure there, while voters in San Benito and Mendocino Counties approved their respective ballot measures.

Santa Barbara’s Measure P would have banned the use of “high-intensity” oil extraction methods, including fracking, by future oil and gas projects on unincorporated county land.  Measure J, the San Benito County Fracking Ban Initiative, also bans “high-intensity petroleum operations,” which includes fracking, acid well stimulation, and cyclic steam injection.  Additionally, it bans any new gas or oil drilling activity in residential and rural areas in the County.  Measure J passed 57% to 43%.  The Mendocino County Community Bill of Rights Fracking and Water Use Initiative, Measure S, bans “unconventional extraction of hydrocarbons,” including fracking.  The ordinance creates a strict liability scheme for damages to any person or property inside Mendocino County caused by unconventional extraction.  Measure S passed 67% to 33%.

What does this mean for the industry?  Tuesday’s votes are a mixed bag for industry, as Santa Barbara is a significant oil and gas producing county, and San Benito, while currently lacking the production numbers of Santa Barbara, has significant reserves within its jurisdiction that require unconventional extraction techniques to produce.  The vote in Mendocino County, by contrast, is largely symbolic, as there is no measurable oil and gas development within the County’s borders.   We predict that mixed results may put a damper on future ballot measures, and likely lead to a legal challenge of the San Benito measure on takings grounds, as well as other legal theories.

California wasn’t the only state with fracking prohibitions on Tuesday’s ballot.  Denton, Texas became the first city in Texas to ban fracking with a ballot measure that passed by a large margin: 59% to 41%.  This vote was surrounded in controversy, as there are about 275 fracked wells within Denton’s city limits, located atop the Barnett shale play.  Athens, Ohio also passed a measure banning fracking.

By Mike Mills (mnmills@stoel.com) and Shannon Morrissey.  Ms. Morrissey is a Law Clerk with Stoel Rives LLP and is not currently licensed to practice law in California.