UP IS DOWN: Contradiction is not so much an affliction as it is the human condition. In fact, if you aren’t contradicting yourself, it’s probably because you ceased respirating some time ago and have become a comfortable pile of mulchified human compost. Using this as my yardstick, I’d have to conclude Santa Barbara’s environmental movement is still alive and kicking despite reports to the contrary.
If nothing else, the enviros are inflicting severe whiplash on those who feel betrayed if the present doesn’t precisely mimic the past. Just look at two of the biggest showdowns to occur in Santa Barbara this past week. On Tuesday night, the Santa Barbara City Council grappled with a building height controversy that shows no sign of going away. After three hours of jarringly civil discourse, nothing really was resolved other than the venue in which further debate will occur. What’s striking in this is how upside-down the players have become. Spearheading the initiative effort to set the new height limit at 40 feet-down from the existing limit of 60 feet-is architect and former planning commissioner Bill Mahan. What makes Mahan so incongruous in this battle is that while on the Planning Commission, he was consistently one of the more reliably pro-business, pro-growth commissioners. In fact, while on the commission-where he reigned as the congenial and well-respected sage silverback-Mahan voted in favor of the two new buildings looming over Chapala Street that have since become the chief exhibits in the argument to lower Santa Barbara’s ceiling. But about the time he left the commission, Mahan experienced a religious epiphany about how all the proposed new big buildings are threatening to destroy Santa Barbara’s soul. And if not for Mahan, there would be no building height initiative campaign.
On the flip side, there’s City Councilmember Das Williams, who has been consistently outspoken in his opposition to the initiative. Williams argued it would undermine developers’ ability to provide affordable housing. But of all the councilmembers, Williams is the most flamboyantly no-growth. He can legitimately boast-and frequently does-that no councilmember has voted against as many development projects as he. More than any other politico I can think of, Williams has consistently sought to embrace and embody the most violently contradictory aspects of the local enviro community. Williams attempts to keep one foot in the Smart Growth camp-which holds that higher urban densities can prevent sprawl, promote mass transit, and accommodate affordable housing-and the other in the Not in My Back Yard posse, who are alarmed at any increase in traffic, congestion, and density. Some have accused the unapologetically political Williams of pandering, posturing, and trying to be all things to all people. There are times I think the same thing. But I give Williams high marks for trying. It’s a risky thing riding two horses charging in opposite directions, and the prospect of failure-and embarrassment-is high. Certainly that was the case with the deal Williams tried to broker, with decidedly mixed results, between Mahan and the preservationists on one hand and their Smart Growth detractors on the other regarding height limits. (For more on that, see Martha Sadler’s news article on here.)
But that was nothing compared to the positively surreal exchanges that took place this Monday at the county’s Planning Commission about plans by Plains Exploration & Production, a Houston-based oil company desperate to cut a quick deal by being the eco-groovy good guy, to expand its current offshore drilling operations-located in federal waters off the coast of Point Concepcion-into the rich, subsea oil reserves that are located in state-controlled waters known as Tranquillon Ridge. In that showdown, you had eco-warriors who had vigorously fought every single offshore oil proposal in the past 25 years testifying passionately on behalf of Plains. Conversely, leading the charge against the oil company was COLAB’s Andy Caldwell, who never before met an oil project he didn’t love. Joining Caldwell in opposition to Plains-and the enviros-were an impressive battery of lobbyists and lawyers with ExxonMobil and Vaquero Energy. While four of the commissioners eventually voted for the Plains project-with one abstention-the actual vote was a real nail-biter with the outcome decided only at the last minute. In this case, Caldwell and the Exxon lobbyists were arguing for more studies and delay-typically the environmentalist tactic of choice-and the enviros calling for quick and speedy resolution. Explaining all this flagrant political cross-dressing was a deal Plains cut with the enviros a couple weeks ago. To win friends and make enemies disappear, Plains pledged to dedicate nearly 4,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land to a public trust, make its expanded project carbon neutral, and donate $1.5 million to local transit companies. But most crucially, Plains agreed to definite drop-dead dates by which all production would cease once and for all at four offshore platforms. That is a historic first. Right now, these platforms can continue indefinitely as long as the price of oil justifies the expense, and the price of oil isn’t coming down. The key drop-dead date is 2022, which cuts production to 14 years (county energy planners estimated Plains could keep pumping in Tranquillon Ridge for as long as 35 years). Plains executives struck this unprecedented deal because oil is now fetching $120 a barrel on the world market. They can afford to buy off the enviros, and they can’t afford not to pump. They also made the deal because California’s Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi told them if they didn’t come up with something the local enviros liked, their proposed project would rot in a very cold hell.
Caldwell complained of back-room deals. Exxon charged it could pump the same oil more environmentally and make more money for the county from wells on Vandenberg Air Force Base. But to date, Exxon has no agreement from Vandenberg to do this. By agreeing to shut down in 14 years, the deal’s critics complained Plains is leaving oil in the ground and money-some of which could go to the county and to the state in the form of oil royalty payments-on the table. Who knows? One industry insider I know-with no love for either the enviros or Plains-explained that given the geology of the reserves, Plains could pump most of what’s there in about five or six years. Who knows what’ll happen next. Maybe Exxon will take a page from the enviro playbook and sue, claiming that the Environmental Impact Report for the Plains project is inadequate. I can’t wait.
In the meantime, I’m okay with all of this. Consistency, as they say, is the hobgoblin of little minds. And I find it reassuring that today looks different than yesterday-and that tomorrow will look different, too. It suggests that we’re not all dead yet. Or at least I’m not.