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oil development and fire in california

Flames grow near oil wells on the eastern flank of the 16,000-plus-acre Guiberson fire, burning out of control for a second day on September 23, 2009 near Moorpark in Ventura County, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Big Oil Accused of Trying to 'Hijack Democracy' With Spending on Local Ordinance Fight

"The risk is that the industry money will constitute a democracy shutdown," Food & Water Watch warns of an effort to block measures in a California county.

Jessica Corbett

Leading up to a vote on a pair of ordinances in California's Ventura County, an environmental advocacy group on Wednesday accused the fossil fuel industry of trying to "hijack democracy."

"Ventura County must vote yes on measures A and B to ensure consistent permitting for the oil and gas industry and the basic environmental regulations to protect public health."

That charge from Food & Water Watch (FWW) followed the Ventura County Star's new reporting on Big Oil spending millions of dollars in a bid to defeat measures A and B, which the organization called an "ominous sign" for the country.

Voters next Tuesday will weigh in on whether to uphold the measures, which were suspended shortly after being approved by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in late 2020 to close loopholes used by energy companies to more easily drill new wells.

As Food & Water Watch (FWW) central coast organizing manager Tomás Morales Rebecchi put it after the vote was announced in February: "For too long the oil and gas industry has used antiquated permits as loopholes to drill wherever they want with no environmental review, even on top of our precious groundwater resources or right next to our homes."

"Ventura County must vote yes on measures A and B to ensure consistent permitting for the oil and gas industry and the basic environmental regulations to protect public health," he said.

Dirty energy interests are "framing the local election in international terms: Stop the Energy Shutdown," FWW warned Wednesday. "That misleading narrative is bad enough, but the risk is that the industry money will constitute a democracy shutdown."

The green group—one of several backing Ventura County Save Agriculture and Freshwater for Everybody (VC-SAFE)—also highlighted a warning from University of California, San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser, who said earlier this year that "direct democracy, like our representative government, is… vulnerable. We have unequal access to the ballot right now. It's no longer the people's process."

The VC Star reported Tuesday that based on financial reports, "organizers of the oil-supported campaign outraised the environmentalists' VC-SAFE by more than 10 to 1, collecting more than $8 million for the petition drive and campaign."

The fossil fuel campaign has spent "almost $6 million since the beginning of the year as they invested in polling, consulting firms, advertising, travel, and donations to local business groups," the newspaper noted.

According to the VC Star:

The campaign to stop the measures spent heavily in the first four months of the year while the environmentalists' VC-SAFE group was still trying to raise enough money to compete. By late April, VC-SAFE had spent less than $13,000 to their opponents' $4.2 million.

The gap has narrowed slightly in recent weeks with more than $500,000 coming in from a climate action group in San Francisco and the Patagonia outdoor gear company in Ventura.

Over a four-week period ending May 21, VC-SAFE spent $418,000 to $1.8 million for the anti-measures side. Patagonia's contributions went toward mailers. The campaign is also investing in staff and signs, expenses the campaign's treasurer said the group could not afford in the early going.

Rebecchi, VC-SAFE's treasurer, told the paper that "we didn't have the luxury of spending money up front."

Concerns about Big Oil's spending to kill the measures have been mounting for months. In March, FWW responded with alarm to California-based Aera Energy—which is owned by ExxonMobil and Shell—dropping $5 million on the fight.

"This is just the beginning of a tsunami of money and misinformation Big Oil is going to flood Ventura County with," Rebecchi said at the time. "But Aera Energy leaders are mistaken if they believe millions in misinformation will fool Ventura County voters into giving up protections for their water, farms, and communities."

"We will not allow fossil fuel interest groups with massive war chests to dictate our future and subvert our democracy," he declared. "More than 1,000 oil wells sit within half a mile of Ventura County homes, and 60% of those homes are located in communities of color. This is a grassroots fight for environmental justice, public health, and a livable future. Aera Energy's fight is for their bottom line and corporate greed."

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