Millions of dollars flow into oil ballot measures as industry spends heavily

Kathleen Wilson
Ventura County Star
Oil well property is located in the Upper Ojai.

Editor's note: This story is one in a series on the June 7 primary. For more coverage, visit

Oil interests have spent more than $4 million on the costliest known ballot measures in Ventura County history to block new restrictions on drilling projects, a newly released financial report shows.

The campaign committee trying to persuade voters to reject the proposed rules has raised $7.3 million from Aera Energy, Chevron and a petroleum trade association since the effort began a year and a half ago. About $5.8 million has come in since January alone, says a 42-page campaign report filed Thursday by the industry committee called Working Families for Jobs and Energy Independence. 

The referendums will appear as Measures A and B on the June 7 primary ballot. A "yes" vote on Measure A allows the restrictions adopted by the Board of Supervisors in November 2020 to go into effect in the coastal areas. A "no" vote stops them. Measure B asks the same questions for the inland portions of the county.

They affect only the unincorporated areas of the county, the territory where oil drilling is concentrated. 

The measures would impose new permit requirements for oil and gas development, including the drilling of wells and re-drilling and deepening of wells.

Aera, which operates a large production facility north of Ventura, has contributed $6.5 million. Chevron has donated $750,000 and the California Independent Petroleum Association has given $50,000. No donations from individuals are listed in the oil-backed campaign's fundraising.

Signs stand in the west Ventura office established for the opposition campaign to Measures A and B.

VC-SAFE, the group trying to pass the measures, reported dozens of donations since January from individuals, including environmental activists and retirees. But its largest donation at $450,000 came from Patagonia Works, an outdoor apparel and gear business based in Ventura.

Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said the contribution is in keeping with the company's commitment to mitigate the impacts of climate and ecological crisis.

While the oil companies have "a ton at stake," they're on the wrong side of history, he said late Friday afternoon.

"The bottom line is permits that were issued in the '40s, '50s and '60s that never expire and never have to undergo any environmental review," he said.

Representatives of oil firms say their operations are reviewed by dozens of local, state and federal agencies for environmental and other reasons, and that the land-use controls proposed in the referendums are unnecessary. Some say the restrictions would shutter the industry in the county but have not provided proof. 

Measures A and B would change county law on the permitting process for all new oil and gas development, according to an independent legal analysis by the office of the County Counsel, which advises the Board of Supervisors. But County Counsel Tiffany North said that in practice the amendments would only apply to what are called "antiquated" permits. Those permits were issued from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, often without expiration dates or limits on the number of wells.

They were approved before a state law was passed that requires environmental impact studies on certain projects. About 80 active antiquated permits covering 2,800 active and idled wells still exist around the county, estimates show.

Funding from the oil industry has gone toward a successful petition drive to get the measures on the ballot, polling, political consulting and both online and traditional campaigning, reports show. Roughly $2 million remained as of April 23, according to the cash balance reported by the committee.

Measure A and B supporters Nathan Castillo, from left, Eric Burschinger and Jillian Hall canvassed homes in Oxnard in April to turn out the vote.

In contrast, the committee trying to pass the measures had spent less than $14,000 and raised about $540,000 since the start of the year. Voters can expect to see the first mailers next week and digital ads are just going up now, said Tomás Morales Rebecchi, treasurer of the VC-SAFE campaign.

Rebecchi expects the oil interests will raise additional funds, but said he's confident that his side will win if people hear the message.

"We're going to give it everything we've got," he said.

Spokesman Ben Oakley declined to comment on the numbers shown in the latest report filed by the energy producers.  

"We will let those speak for themselves," he said Friday.

He also declined to speak on the question of why there have been no contributions from individuals, although he has argued in the past that the measures had wide support based on the tens of thousands of voters who signed petitions to send the issue to the ballot.

Oakley said he did not know if any individuals were asked to give.

"We're pleased with the reaction we're seeing (to the campaign)," he said. "We feel like we're running a good campaign."

The reports filed Thursday were the first regular reports before the June 7 election. The next one is due May 26.

Spending of $4 million surpasses what was the highest spending campaign in local election history. That came in 2000 when about $3 million was spent over a defeated initiative that would have shifted to private hospitals control of the county's share of national tobacco settlement money.

To see the reports on the oil measures, visit Enter the public portal, click on the June 7 primary election and then click on measures.

June 7 primary election

Ventura County will be conducting the election under a new California Voter's Choice Act model that allows voters to choose how, when and where to cast their ballots.

Ballots: Mail-in ballots are sent to all registered voters starting May 9.  

When and where to vote: Mail or drop off ballots by June 7 or vote in person May 28 – June 7 at county voting centers. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except for Election Day, when they run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. You can vote early in-person beginning May 9 at the Ventura County Elections Division office on the bottom floor of the county's Hall of Administration, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura.

Voter registration deadlines: Online by May 23 and in-person through June 7.

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Kathleen Wilson covers the Ventura County government, including the county health system, politics and social services. Reach her at or 805-437-0271.