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State Court Judge Rejects California County's Year-Old Drilling Ban

A county superior court judge in California last Thursday partly rejected a ballot measure passed by Monterey County voters in November 2016 to ban oil and natural gas drilling. The court has allowed part of the measure that bans hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to stand.

Monterey County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills decided six weeks after taking the case that Measure Z is preempted by federal and state law. Wills' ruling is expected to affect all counties in which drilling or fracking restrictions have been enacted by local voters or elected officials.

Within 24 hours of the judge's action, environmental groups indicated that they plan to appeal Wills' ruling. "The court's decision leaves the fracking ban in place, ruling that oil industry plaintiffs lack standing to challenge it. The ruling strikes down the ban on new oil/gas wells and wastewater injection, finding that these portions are preempted or disallowed by state and federal law," the Center for Biological Diversity said.

Laura Solorio, president of Protect Monterey County, announced last Friday that her group would appeal. "We're confident the higher court will uphold Measure Z,"  Solorio said. Monterey County has few oil and natural gas deposits.

While the fracking ban remains, oil and gas developers in the county are free to drill new wells and inject them with water and steam. Limited drilling in Monterey County primarily takes place in two areas -- the San Ardo and Lynch Canyon areas. San Ardo is the state's fifth largest oilfield.

Industry operators who challenged Measure Z more than a year ago after its passage, including the two biggest producers in the county -- Chevron USA and Aera Energy LLC -- disagreed with Wills' finding that they lack standing to challenge the fracking ban because they are not currently engaged in that drilling method. An Aera spokesperson added that the companies are pleased with the decision overall because they have maintained all along that the ballot measure was unlawful.

"We continue to believe that Measure Z's hydraulic fracturing ban is preempted by overlapping state and federal law," the Aera spokesperson said.

Measure Z was passed with 55.5% of the county vote.The anti-fracking group, Protect Monterey County, supported Measure Z and helped qualify it for the ballot.

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