Big Oil used $8 mil­lion and ‘trusted man­agers’ to de­feat SLO frack­ing ban

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY MON­ICA VAUGHAN

A cit­i­zens’ ini­tia­tive to ban frack­ing and new oil wells in San Luis Obispo County failed in Tues­day’s midterm elec­tion af­ter the oil in­dus­try spent nearly $8 mil­lion to de­feat it us­ing a bar­rage of strate­gic ad­ver­tis­ing fea­tur­ing “trusted mes­sen­gers.”

On Wed­nes­day, bal­lots counted so far showed that 30,574 vot­ers op­posed the ini­tia­tive and 23,084 vot­ers sup­ported it. That gives the No on Mea­sure G cam­paign an 11-point lead, a gap that is un­likely to be closed even with tens of thou­sands vote-by-mail and pro­vi­sional bal­lots left to be counted.

For months, vot­ers were bom­barded with an un­prece­dented amount of tar­geted ad­ver­tise­ments, from pro­moted so­cial me­dia posts to glossy mail­ers and tra­di­tional me­dia ads. All fea­tured the faces of lo­cal peo­ple, in­clud­ing teach­ers, farm­ers, small busi­ness own­ers and sci­en­tists, quot­ing the same talk­ing points. Some of those mes­sages were in­ac­cu­rate.

Matt Cun­ning­ham, spokesman with the No on Mea­sure G cam­paign, said its suc­cess was due to hav­ing “a con­sis­tent truth­ful mes­sage to tell vot­ers,” and a broad coali­tion.

An­other key was what Cun­ning­ham called “trusted mes­sen­gers” —“reg­u­lar peo­ple who know their sub­ject mat­ter and

they’re re­lat­able and cred­i­ble,” he said.

Those No on Mea­sure G ads are what en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Charles Varni said had the big­gest in­flu­ence on vot­ers.

“It starts with (the No on Mea­sure G cam­paign) hav­ing mil­lions of dol­lars avail­able to spend to hire the best con­sult­ing firms, some of the best po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives, peo­ple who are fa­mil­iar with dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing ... do­ing nu­mer­ous polls, fo­cus groups and putting to­gether talk­ing points that tested very well, and be­ing able to pub­lish those thou­sands of times,” Varni said.

Lo­cals like Varni said they were mo­ti­vated by cli­mate change and the de­sire to pro­tect un­der­ground wa­ter re­sources when they brought Mea­sure G to vot­ers — in part, to pre­vent a pro­posed ex­pan­sion of 481 new oil wells in the Ar­royo Grande Oil­field near Pismo Beach— while al­low­ing cur­rent oil pro­duc­tion to con­tinue. They also hoped to ban frack­ing in the county be­fore it starts.

The mostly grass­roots cam­paign reached out to vot­ers with a se­ries of in­for­ma­tional meet­ings, can­vass­ing and some ad­ver­tis­ing.

Mea­sure G sup­port­ers got fi­nan­cial back­ing from en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­di­vid­ual donors to the tune of about $240,000. (Half of that amount was in the form of non­mon­e­tary con­tri­bu­tions such as art for an auc­tion or do­nated pro­fes­sional ser­vices.) The Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity was a ma­jor donor, con­tribut­ing about $60,000.

That ef­fort was dwarfed by mil­lions in oil money do­nated to the No on Mea­sure G cam­paign from Chevron, Sen­tinel Peaks Re­sources and Aera En­ergy, which is coowned by Shell and Exxon­Mo­bil.

That cam­paign chest was mostly divvied up be­tween the di­rect cost of the ad­ver­tis­ing and pay­ing the strate­gists who come up with what those ad­ver­tise­ments should say: po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants and cam­paign man­agers with years of ex­pe­ri­ence who rely on costly polls to learn what vot­ers think.

Those lo­cal cam­paign spokes­peo­ple told their neigh­bors that “There is no frack­ing in San Luis Obispo” and that “Mea­sure G goes too far,” call­ing it a com­plete “shut­down of ex­ist­ing en­ergy pro­duc­tion” that would cost lo­cal jobs, in­crease de­pen­dency on for­eign oil and cut fund­ing to schools and emer­gency ser­vices.

San Luis Obispo County As­ses­sor Tom Bor­donaro said in anti-Mea­sure G ad­ver­tis­ing that the mea­sure “bans rou­tine main­te­nance,” a teacher said the county would lose tax rev­enue from a shut­down, and a fish­er­man said the state would be more re­liant on oil shipped in tankers from Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia. (San Luis Obispo County pro­duces less than half a per­cent of oil pro­duced in Cal­i­for- nia.)

That mes­sage has a ten­u­ous re­la­tion­ship to the facts of Mea­sure G.

It’s ac­cu­rate that there is cur­rently no frack­ing in San Luis Obispo County. But it’s a leap to say the mea­sure would have caused a com­plete shut­down of ex­ist­ing pro­duc­tion. Text of the full mea­sure and pro­posed rule changes clearly say cur­rent op­er­a­tions and rou­tine main­te­nance would be al­lowed to con­tinue.

“They fab­ri­cated and put to­gether any talk­ing point that they could come up with to flip the voter to their side,” Varni said of Mea­sure G op­po­nents. “Given that ca­pac­ity, our abil­ity to re­spond to that with what we un­der­stood the truth to be — not shut­ting them down, al­low­ing them to do main­te­nance — that got lost in the for­est of the on­slaught of mis­in­for­ma­tion.”

Mon­ica Vaughan: 805-781-7930; @Mon­i­caLVaughan

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