With dollar signs in their eyes and soaring gas prices pummeling them at the pumps, the Santa Barbara County supervisors put an undeniable pockmark on the county’s celebrated environmental legacy this week, urging Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to lift the state’s longstanding ban on new offshore oil leases. After enduring a nearly nine-hour hearing on the subject, complete with 85 public speakers and an exhaustive presentation by county staff, the board voted 3-2-with the victory delivered by a North County majority-in favor of a letter aimed at softening the governor’s stance on both state and federal offshore oil moratoriums in the name of fiscal and, surprisingly, environmental prudence.
In a move of defiance foreshadowed by their outspoken criticism of the letter approved by their own board, supervisors Janet Wolf and Salud Carbajal drafted a letter of their own in the aftermath of Tuesday’s hearing, telling Schwarzenegger, among other things, “We strongly disagree with the premise and conclusions of that letter and we are concerned [about the] extensive misinformation contained in that letter. : We look forward to working with you and our partners at the state and local level to maintain the moratoria.”
Though largely symbolic, as the supervisors have no real authority in approving new offshore drilling activity, the vote-which comes nearly 40 years after Union Oil’s Platform A hemorrhaged more than one million gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel-marks a historic shift in a county that not only hangs its hat on being the birthplace of the modern environmental movement but also, as recently as just last year, has repeatedly taken an unflinching stand against new offshore oil exploration. “For us to send this letter flies in the face of reason and flies in the face of what I believe our community wants and stands for,” said a visibly emotional 2nd District Supervisor Wolf, mere moments before the fateful votes were cast.
The action began innocently enough on Tuesday with County Energy Division’s Doug Anthony giving an informed presentation on the current state of energy, effectively painting a picture of a marketplace where domestic demand exceeds current domestic product. Anthony covered everything from the global perspective right down to the specifics of Santa Barbara County oil operators and the future prospective of alternative energies in the area, such as wind, solar, and wave.
Most enticing, though, to the majority of the board was Anthony’s testimony that, according to folks from the federal Minerals Management Service and the California State Lands Commission, there are an estimated 5.74 billion barrels of crude and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lying untapped beneath the ocean’s floor in the area covered by the federal moratorium from San Louis Obispo County south to Mexico, with an additional 761 million barrels of oil and 189 billion cubic feet of natural gas in the areas immediately offshore of Santa Barbara that are currently under the jurisdiction of the state ban. And while the county currently makes about $5.5 million a year in oil-related revenue from both onshore and offshore operations, the belief is that, should the moratorium be lifted, the cash-strapped county could stand to make tens of millions more.
Adding further impetus to the supes’ desire to reopen oil exploration off the coast of Santa Barbara is the belief, trumpeted primarily by 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, that a national emergency will make the federal government come looking for our untapped oil resources. “Regardless of what our views are, if there is a national emergency for fuel, the considerations of Santa Barbara are liable to be lost,” said Firestone. “Not only do we not have enough money to do the things we want : but we need to do this on our own terms, in a way that we control [in order to preempt an emergency extraction].”
Furthermore, in a line of argument that took up a bulk of Tuesday’s debate, Firestone and his fellow oil supporters contended that additional oil harvesting in the Santa Barbara Channel would actually help the environment by decreasing the natural oil seeps that have long plagued local waters and area beaches. Ironically, the UCSB research used to back up this claim-done by Dr. Bruce Luyendyk at the Coal Oil Point reserve beneath Platform Hondo-was effectively discredited by Luyendyk himself Tuesday when he testified that such conclusions drawn from his work were “unjustified and unwarranted extrapolations.” That being said, the letter approved this week dedicates an entire paragraph to the seepage issue as being a motivating factor in undoing the bans.
Less than convinced by the promise of money, the possibility of cheaper prices at the pump, or the likelihood of a federal raid on our fossil fuel reserves, Santa Barbara’s environmental community turned out en masse on Tuesday to speak against lifting the moratoriums. Organizations like the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Get Oil Out (GOO), and the Community Environmental Council (CEC)-all of which were formed in the immediate wake of the 1969 Unocal spill-urged the supervisors to hold the anti-drilling line despite mounting industry and partisan pressures. “The problem is not that oil is too expensive,” explained GOO president John Abraham Powell, “the problem is that we are addicted to oil. Everybody knows that when a junkie needs a fix, they are dangerous and don’t make good decisions.”
Many others reminded the supervisors of many devastating oil spills in the county both onshore and off in the years since 1969-including the accident off Vandenberg in the late 1990s, Exxon’s flagrant PCB release off Platform Hondo, and, most recently, the rash of mishaps by Greka Energy. Others, including CEC Energy Specialist Tam Hunt, pointed to a report from the U.S. Energy Department that claims that lifting the moratoriums today still wouldn’t affect the marketplace for 20-plus years. “We have a huge problem on our hands,” said Hunt of the current energy crisis, “but new drilling is not part of the solution. : It [the amount of oil available offshore] is a drop in the bucket, if that.”
For most of those opposed, the idea of more drilling is nothing but a politically motivated roadblock on the way to emerging alternative energy sources. As EDC Chief Counsel Linda Krop put it, “Think where we would be today if we had started looking at this 30 years ago when we had our oil crisis in the 1970s. If we had started moving away from oil then, think where we would be today.”
In the end, the pleas of the enviros and even other elected officials like Congressmember Lois Capps, Senator Barbara Boxer, State Assemblymember Pedro Nava, and Santa Barbara City Council members Helene Schneider and Das Williams fell on deaf ears with the majority of the supervisors.
But for the minority, the pleas were not only heard but actually picked up and carried forward, echoing Santa Barbara’s scarred though very much intact environmental legacy all the way to the governor’s office, in the form of Wolf and Carbajal’s letter of defiance.