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American Politics | Civic and Community Engagement | Environmental Studies | Organization Development | Place and Environment | Sociology


In 2014, volunteers in Santa Barbara County, California, collected over 20,000 signatures in three weeks to qualify an anti-fracking initiative for the November election. The initiative, Measure P, met over six million dollars in opposition from oil corporations. Despite mobilizing 1,000 volunteers, the proponents of the measure failed to garner enough votes for success. Drawing on 43 in-depth interviews and participant observation with environmental groups before, during, and after the campaign, this article examines the strengths and weaknesses of grassroots organizing behind Measure P. Organizers, especially during the signature drive, successfully garnered broad-based support in the southern part of the county, an affluent and tourist-dependent area with no onshore oil drilling. Messages based on water, made more salient by California's historic drought, resonated with many residents. Yet, after qualifying for the ballot, proponents of the campaign allied with the local Democratic Party, changing their organizing practices and forestalling bipartisan support. Outreach to Latinos in all areas of the county, and particularly in the northern part, where onshore drilling takes place, was limited. Finally, the overwhelming inequality between the financial power of proponents and the oil industry influenced the outcome. Based on this case, I argue that coalition building and groundwork to develop support within all sectors of communities, especially those most dependent on fossil fuel extraction, is critical to strengthening grassroots efforts that challenge the energy status quo.