Oil and Water and Measure P

The Fight Is for the Future

Although I strongly disagree with him, I welcome Professor Eric Smith’s Voice opposing Measure P. Its calm tone and rational approach give both sides a chance to offer reasons rather than rhetoric.

However, he conflates two issues, environment and fairness. The fate of current drilling is an issue of fairness to already committed workers and investors. It’s important, but that’s why Measure P (like other land use laws) specifically stipulates that it applies only to future development (future wells using high-intensity techniques), not to existing operations (current drilling): see Section 5, paragraph C, on p. 26. I’m not a lawyer, but the only ambiguity I can see is whether current permits would be renewed in future; all the officials who should know seem to say they would be. Smith claims there would be a “substantial” reduction, but he gives no evidence or examples.

For the environment, Smith’s argument cannot be strictly true. Measure P couldn’t reduce S.B. oil and gas drilling substantially, because it isn’t substantial now. It is about one percent of Santa Barbara’s economy and a far smaller fraction of world or U.S. oil supplies.

Still, he might argue that the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from thousands (or tens of thousands) of new wells — using methods banned by Measure P — would be less than the emissions caused by importing an equal amount of foreign oil that we’d be using if we didn’t drill these wells. But the numbers don’t support this argument. According to reports by IHS CERA posted on the American Petroleum Institute website, which take into account production, transportation, and refining, greenhouse gas emissions from California heavy oil are substantially higher than the average U.S. barrel consumed.

Further, this comparison is biased against Measure P. It assumes the oil drilled here will stay here. It won’t. It will be transported to refineries elsewhere and become part of the global pool, to be sent wherever the profits are best — regardless of emissions and ocean pollution, which are “externalities” the oil industry ignores. What little comes back here will be a negligible part of what we use. It is possible, even likely, that the new oil would be exported rather than sold in the U.S., leading to more transportation, not less. Last year, the U.S. exported more gasoline, heating oil, and diesel fuel than it imported.

Even this oversimplifies. It assumes the demand for oil is constant or increasing: Whatever we don’t produce, we’ll have to buy. That’s not the trend. Conservation and renewable energy are becoming more attractive as the technology improves, and fossil fuels less so as their costs (hidden, external, and other) grow and become clearer. This is a slow process, partly because fossil fuel is so heavily subsidized, but it’s gaining speed and is the solution to global warming in the long run.

A second environmental issue is local. The procedures targeted by Measure P use lots of water, pollute the water table, and pollute the air. Smith seems to ignore the first: “Bans on drilling techniques that are not alleged to be risky have nothing to do with … environmentalism.” Surely gobbling vast amounts of water in a largely agricultural county during a long drought with no end in sight has everything to do with environmentalism: It’s not “risky” — it’s certain! The City of Santa Maria uses about 4 billion gallons of water. In 2013, enhanced oil recovery operations in California used more than 80 billion gallons, about the amount used by 500,000 households. The grandiose plans targeted by Measure P could use many times that amount. How much? Is it suitable for agriculture? We don’t know because they don’t have to tell us.

Smith does describe the risk of water table contamination, but he would handle it by a moratorium, study, and then regulation. In a better world, I would, too. But the oil industry doesn’t tolerate such objective procedures. When the scientific evidence for global warming became overwhelming, the industry could have joined with government, scientists, other experts, and stakeholders to plan a gradual phase-out of fossil fuels over several decades, to minimize disruption of energy supplies, its workers’ livelihoods, and even its own ability to continue making profits while moving into cleaner activities, including conservation and renewables. Instead, it chose an all-out assault, hiring legions of lobbyists and liars to smear scientists as “hoaxers,” without producing any evidence or seriously addressing the science.

The industry would fight a moratorium, study, and regulation just as fiercely and deceptively as it is fighting Measure P. If it passed, the industry would do what it took to control or discredit the studies; and then they would challenge and defy the regulations, and deceive and corrupt the regulators. The difference between a moratorium and a ban is not that the ban is forever: It’s that ending the ban would require the oil industry to guarantee to voters that it will accept a vigorous, independent regulatory structure to ensure it operates responsibly.

The oil industry has shown repeatedly that it cannot be trusted to address concerns like global warming, the local environment, or the lives of its workers, unless it is forced to. Measure P is a small step in the right direction.

Allan Stewart-Oaten is professor (emeritus) of mathematical biology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at University of California, Santa Barbara.

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