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Michael Hiltzik: The 'For Sale' sign on the California ballot

February 20, 2010 |  2:00 pm

The phenomenon of corporations buying their way onto the California election ballot is fast reaching epidemic proportions. If the multimillion-dollar initiative campaigns by Mercury Insurance and Pacific Gas & Electric weren't enough -- the first on behalf of an initiative to gut the state's insurance consumer-protection law, the second to immunize private utilities from public competition -- here comes Venoco Inc.

The Denver-based independent oil company wants to give itself unique exemptions from local health, safety and environmental regulations in its California home away from home, Carpinteria.

If there's a silver lining in this fat-catted cloud, it may be that it gives the entire initiative process a reputation for corruption. Since most initiatives are badly drafted abominations, on balance that's probably a good thing.

What makes a company like Venoco have such a feeling of entitlement? Could it be the Enron connection? The infamous energy company provided Venoco with $60 million in financing in 1998, controlled its board for a while, then was bought out in 2004. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that some of Enron's DNA permanently infected Venoco's blood.

The column begins below.

Carpinteria is a lovely little city on the Pacific just south of Santa Barbara, boasting such features as a city-owned coastal preserve and one of the four remaining seal rookeries in Southern California.

Just about the last place you’d expect to become the target of a hostile corporate takeover.

The corporation is Venoco Inc., an independent oil company with revenue of more than half a billion dollars a year, which currently owns an oil storage facility in Carpinteria. One would get weary painting big oil companies as soulless monsters, if Venoco didn’t make it so easy. 

This Denver-based firm is spending lavishly to pass a ballot initiative specifically exempting itself from the city’s industrial development and environmental rules.

That’s because it’s afraid that Carpinteria’s elected officials, left to their own devices, might not greenlight its proposal to operate a 10-story oil derrick round the clock on its property, next door to a 225-home residential neighborhood and on the edge of the ecologically sensitive coastal bluffs.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik
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