Eight towns and counties across the country are taking their health and environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to the ballot boxes next week.
That’s apparently a record number for a single election day, according to experts who spoke to InsideClimate News.
Fracking is “the number one political issue” related to energy this election, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego.
The controversial process, which involves pumping a slurry of water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open shale bedrock and extract oil and gas, has driven a surge in U.S. energy production, enriched property owners and created local jobs.
But there’s a growing backlash against the industry: Opponents are concerned about air, water, waste, noise and light pollution, and they argue that regulations are too weak.
Fracking is “coming into communities where people live and work and play, and people are increasingly saying a drilling rig is not a neighbor I want to have,” said Kate Sinding, senior attorney and director of the Community Fracking Defense Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Here’s the rundown of the eight anti-fracking campaigns on the Tuesday, Nov. 4 ballot: four Ohio towns (Athens, Gates Mills, Kent and Youngstown), one Texas town (Denton) and three southern California counties (Santa Barbara, San Benito and Mendocino).
A notable absence from the list is Colorado, the birthplace of the anti-fracking movement. Citizens there pursued two state-level initiatives that would have restricted fracking, but those efforts were derailed in August by Gov. John Hickenlooper out of fear that fracking would become a wedge issue and split the Democratic vote at a crucial time for the party.
Several Colorado towns, including Longmont, have previously passed local fracking bans through ballot measures. The industry and state officials have since brought lawsuits against those bans.
For all the initiatives that made it onto the ballot, the stakes are high. Texas is the top oil-and-gas-producing state. California is the second-highest oil producer. Ohio is not on the list of the top-10 energy-producing states but fracking is behind its near doubling of natural gas production in recent years.
The energy industry and its allies who oppose the ballot initiatives are outspending supporters by millions of dollars. In Santa Barbara, opposition has raised $5.6 million, reported the Santa Barbara Independent. That’s nearly 20 times the $284,000 raised by those in favor of the fracking restrictions.
In Texas, the group Frack Free Denton has raised about $75,000 since July. The ban’s leading opponent, Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, has raised almost $700,000, according to the Dallas Morning News.
And in Youngstown, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396, a union opposing the ban, has spent over $70,000. The ban supporters have spent less than $3,000.
This is Youngstown’s fourth attempt to restrict drilling; it’s the first time for all the other initiatives. With each successive election, the Ohio town’s measure gets closer to being passed: it lost by 13.7 percent in May 2013, 9.7 percent in November 2013, and, most recently, 8.3 percent, in May 2014.
“All the time more people are waking up” to the issues, said Susie Beiersdorfer, a local activist.
Beiersdorfer, who has a background in geology, became interested in 2010, when she learned of plans to drill in a park near town. Since then, studies have come out linking increased seismic activity in the Ohio town to a nearby injection of fracking waste water.
Beiersdorfer joined forces with other residents and approached the city council with their concerns, she said, but the officials weren’t receptive. Eventually, the group launched the ballot initiative for a community bill of rights that declares: “It shall be unlawful for any government or corporation to engage in the extraction of oil and gas within the city of Youngstown.” The charter then calls out fracking in particular.
Butch Taylor, business manager of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396, contends that cutting the city off from drilling and related activities “would stop positive growth” of the economy.
Taylor said he understands the measure might pass. After the election, regardless of the outcome, Taylor, said his group is willing to “see if we can find common ground to work with legislators at the state level. I believe that’s the best avenue to resolve these differences.”
Similar to the efforts in Youngstown, Denton activist Adam Briggle said that the pursuit of a ban on the ballot in North Texas to limit new drilling activity “is the last option that’s left for us.” Denton has 281 gas wells within the city limits, some closer than 200 feet to parks and homes.
Briggle told InsideClimate news he’s “really confident” the measure will pass.
Organizer Katie Davis of Santa Barbara shares that optimism about efforts to curb fracking and other drilling techniques in Southern California. “We are making calls and reaching out to voters…and trying to get out the vote,” she said.
In California, which is in the midst of a record drought, citizens are particularly concerned about the industry’s use and influence on precious water resources, said Davis. There’s both the concern about the prodigious amounts of water being used to drill, as well as the potential for the resulting waste to contaminate drinking water.
Several California cities, including Beverly Hills, have banned fracking this year. And Butte County, in the northern part of the state, is already moving to get a ban measure on the ballot in November 2016.
It’s “definitely been a rising tide this year,” Davis said.