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Small Town Seeks Fair Fight in Battling Oil Industry’s Expansion

Recently, residents of La Habra Heights, California, rang in the New Year with a victory that ensures the small town will have a fair chance at banning new oil and gas drilling come election time.

Oil wells near La Habra, 1920s

Oil wells near La Habra Heights during the 1920s.

Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

This week, residents of La Habra Heights, California, rang in the New Year with a victory that ensures the small town will have a fair chance at banning new oil and gas drilling come election time in March. 

La Habra Heights, located in Los Angeles County, is known for its scenic beauty and canyon living. The area is also at the center of major expansion plans for oil and gas operations and the potential proliferation of new, unconventional techniques like fracking and acidization in the region.

Concerned about the environmental and health effects that additional invasive drilling would have on their community, La Habra Heights residents placed a measure on the March ballot that would prohibit land use for drilling new oil and gas wells, new high-intensity petroleum operations like hydraulic fracturing, and the reactivation of idle wells. The initiative would also ensure that operators with vested rights, including rights to use high-intensity techniques, could continue their operations.

In November, the city released the language for the ballot label, which is the information that’s prominently displayed on the ballot. Soon after, an individual with legal support from the oil and gas industry sued to change the language of the ballot label by broadening it to apply to both new and existing operations with vested rights to produce oil, thereby misleading voters at the ballot box. The individual was represented by the same lawyer quoted as representing Californians for Energy Independence, which is an oil industry lobbying group. 

After the city caved to the oil industry’s demands, several individuals, La Habra Heights Oil Watch and the Center for Biological Diversity—represented by Earthjustice—sued to push back against this misleading language. On New Year’s Eve, the Los Angeles County Superior Court sided with these groups, determining that the oil industry’s language was inaccurate and misleading. 

Just a few days later, the city council proposed new ballot label language that residents still found misleading, so Earthjustice went back to court, and once again, the court sided with residents seeking fair language on the ballot. 

Now that the ballot label language has improved, La Habra Heights Oil Watch, a grassroots movement concerned about high intensity oil operations hurting this bucolic canyon community, can focus on winning the measure. Though the oil industry has infinite resources—they’ve already spent $200,000—La Habra Heights Oil Watch has the familiar grassroots activism seen in New York and elsewhere that has successfully pushed back against fracking.  

Moreover, having worked with many residents of La Habra Heights over the last few months, I’m not convinced the well-financed oil industry spin machine will be able to grab hold of the voters and keep locals from taking back control of what happens within their town borders. 

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