(CN) – A California judge on Thursday let a voter-approved ban on fracking in Monterey County stand, but struck down its prohibition on new drilling because it conflicts with state and federal laws.
Monterey County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills said the voter-approved ban on drilling new oil and gas extraction wells and water injection wells conflicts with the state’s Underground Injection Control Program, which pre-empts the county’s authority on the matter.
But he also said energy companies lack standing to challenge the fracking ban since fracking isn’t currently happening in the county.
Protect Monterey County said they will appeal the court’s decision, confident a higher court will uphold all components of the fracking ban. They intervened in the lawsuit to join Monterey County.
Wills struck down two of the policies in Measure Z, approved by voters last year, including drilling new oil and gas extraction wells and groundwater injection wells.
But he said he’d keep the portion of the measure that banned fracking because it was truly the will of the people.
“Given the campaigns’ focus on the fracking ban, the court believes the electorate would prefer ‘to achieve at least some substantial portion of their purpose’ rather than see the whole initiative be invalidated,” Wills wrote.
Two lawsuits – including one by fuel giant Chevron – filed shortly after voters approved Measure Z in November 2016 asked the court to find the measure pre-empted by federal and state laws on oil and gas production, and illegally takes property without compensation.
In the end six lawsuits involving hundreds of plaintiffs were consolidated into a single case, which went to trial over four days last month.
Kassie Siegel, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who joined the case, said other operators could apply for a fracking permit in the future.
"We're grateful the courts upheld the ban on fracking at this time," Siegel said in an interview, but added state and federal laws that are supposed to provide strong protections for drinking water haven’t helped communities in the past.
In his decision, Wills said the federal Safe Drinking Water Act is intended to regulate and not prohibit energy production and other commercial uses. Siegel said those types of laws have failed residents.
The companies challenging Measure Z said state law pre-empts at least one component of the measure, since it is a ban on production techniques and not a land-use regulation.
Attorney Jeffrey Dintzer from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said he was pleased with the court’s decision to strike down two Measure Z components.
“The court recognized in its thorough and well-reasoned decision that these provisions conflict with California state law and federal law, which regulate and encourage these operations,” said Dintzer in a statement.
Chevron intends to defend the ruling in the appeals court, he said.
The Monterey County Counsel’s Office did not return a phone call seeking comment on Thursday’s ruling.
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