OIL ON THE WATER: Sometimes, it’s what doesn’t happen that counts most. A case in point was the showdown instigated by County Supervisor Salud Carbajal that was narrowly averted this Tuesday between Santa Barbara’s eco-warriors and pro-oil crowd before the Board of Supervisors. Wanting to flip off George Bush and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain for arguing that new oil leasing should be allowed off the shores of Santa Barbara-not to mention the whole Pacific and Atlantic coasts-Carbajal placed an item on Tuesday’s agenda calling on his fellow supervisors to reaffirm the county’s support of a Congressional moratorium on new offshore oil leasing in place since 1981. McCain and Bush have called for lifting that moratorium.
Carbajal wanted to make all the usual rhetorical points; how Santa Barbara-thanks to the 1969 Oil Spill-knows firsthand the devastation human error can inflict when offshore oil is involved, and how the moratorium on new leasing has been good for business-at least fishing and tourism-as well as the environment. Ordinarily, it might have been another story about political posturing. Boring. Predictable. But then a new pro-oil group-SOS (Stop Oil Seeps) California-quickly responded, challenging Carbajal and the enviro community to a rhetorical face-off. Offshore oil drilling was good, SOS California argued. By pumping out the oil below the ocean floor, we can alleviate the subsurface pressure that gives rise to natural oil seeps, which SOS decries as the most invidious threat to the environment since the invention of Wonder Bread. And with the revenues generated by all this new drilling, it contends we can fund the development of solar and other alternative energies that will carry us all into a cleaner and greener future. It’s a nice song, I have to admit. But on closer listening, I find I just can’t dance to it.
Given the solidly pro-growth, pro-business, pro-oil tilt of the board majority, the enviros wondered if Carbajal had the votes for such a resolution. And if he didn’t, they wondered, what the hell he was doing? But surely, he must; otherwise, Carbajal-known for being such a careful, cautious, belts-and-suspenders kind of guy-would never do something so reckless and risky. Just imagine if Santa Barbara’s supervisors actually voted to oppose the oil moratorium, which we are told was inspired in part by our 1969 oil spill. The ramifications would be nothing less than intergalactic. Every newspaper in the world would write how Santa Barbara-the birthplace of the environmental movement and the urban icon of oil disasters-had opened its arms to oil exploration in the ridiculously vain hope of securing cheaper gas. Bush and McCain would seize upon our vote to justify every depredation of the environment they could imagine. In no time flat, we’d have derricks on the beach. In other words, the stakes were huge. And it turns out Carbajal did not have the votes. On Monday, he asked 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone where he stood. It turns out that Firestone, the key swing vote, was not standing with him.
In the meantime, SOS experienced many of the problems typical of a new group publicly engaging in rhetorical combat for the first time. The $300 million a year it claims the county could get from new oil drilling, it turns out, is based on generous revenue-sharing agreements-between feds and the state and between the state and the county-that do not currently exist outside of its members’ own imaginations. And yes, oil seeps do contribute to air pollution, but they are nowhere near the Number One source that SOS director Judy Rossiter claims. That distinction belongs to all the tankers in the channel, followed by all the cars and trucks on the road. As to whether increased drilling alleviates natural seepage, that all depends. Throughout much of the channel, the offshore oil deposits are located far below the natural seep deposits. By drilling for oil, you do little to affect many seeps.
At Venoco’s Platform Holly-located off the coast of UCSB-however, the seep formation is directly above the oil reservoir. In addition, there are cracks and channels connecting the Holly reserves to the seeps. UCSB scientists have found that drilling at Holly does, in fact, reduce the volume of seepage. Many geologists suspect this is a temporary phenomenon. But even if it’s not, what happens at Holly does not necessarily happen elsewhere throughout the channel. Scientists studying seeps say it’s nearly impossible to track down the source of many of the tar balls that wash up onshore. So even if drilling helps, it’s not clear where you should drill. Venoco, Inc., it turns out, is currently trying to expand operations at Platform Holly. Venoco has also made a big deal about natural seepage and what it’s been doing to curb its emissions. And finally, Venoco also gave SOS $40,000 to help get the new group off the ground. Might there be a connection between the money and the message? You tell me.
SOS also points out how substantially offshore drilling technology has advanced since 1969 and that we need not wet our pants quite so profusely when offshore oil is mentioned. And it’s true that the technology is better. But it’s also true that the technology to prevent the 1969 oil spill existed all the way back in 1969. But human error, being infallible and irresistible, prevailed over technology. Human error overrode the safety technology again in 1997 when there was a much smaller spill at Platform Irene. And I’m not sure what technology exists to keep a drunk from captaining an oil tanker, as happened with the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
By the time the Tuesday board meeting rolled around, Carbajal had figured out he needed to beat a strategic retreat. But even then, he was lucky to get out alive. We all were. To withdraw the item from consideration, he needed three votes. Supervisors Joni Gray and Brooks Firestone voted against him. Luckily for Carbajal, 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno-with whom Salud has cultivated good relations-came to his rescue, providing the third vote needed to yank the item. Lucky, I’d say, for all of us.