Close on the heels of the infamous 3-2 vote by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to send a letter to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger requesting a repeal of the moratorium on offshore oil and gas leases, the Goleta City Council considered its own resolution in support of the decades-long ban. The 4-1 decision on Tuesday night, September 16, to revise the resolution before approving it came after the council heard testimony concerning its validity, and a general airing of peoples’ opinions of offshore drilling activities in Goleta.
Representatives from Venoco-which currently has a proposed project to increase production at its Platform Holly, located just off Coal Oil Point in Goleta-were among those waiting for a turn to speak, cheek to jowl with community activist groups spanning the spectrum of stances for and against oil production. In an area that has been avidly anti-drilling since Union Oil’s huge 1969 spill at Platform A-a mistake that dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into Santa Barbara’s coastal waters-the clamor for offshore oil development has become increasingly loud under economic pressure from increases in the price of gas and oil over the past two or three years.
After reviewing some facts and figures about local petroleum production, the council watched a video presentation-requested by Mayor Michael Bennett-showing the benefits of drilling to the environment. According to the video and some of the people who showed up to represent Stop Oil Seeps (SOS), petroleum production reduces the amount of tar and methane seeping onto beaches and into the atmosphere. Councilmember Jean Blois concurred that in her experience, the amount of tar on the beach has decreased noticeably since Venoco installed steel seep tents over some of the worst seeps. “We have an energy crisis not only in California, but nationally,” said Joe Armendiraz, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers’ Association, emphasizing the destruction of 28 offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico by Hurricane Ike last week.
Many members of the public who spoke in support of the anti-leasing resolution-which was written by city staff-were not convinced of the video’s argument, nor of the testimony of the self-proclaimed environmentalists-turned-pragmatists interviewed in the show. Some of the footage cited by Mayor Bennett as presenting a potential solution to offshore production problems was a 1950s-era documentary about a completely submerged drilling apparatus installed offshore from Tajiguas Canyon decades ago. “Why is Santa Barbara County-the cradle of the modern environmental movement-supporting offshore oil drilling?” asked Caroline Vance, a spokesperson for State Assemblymember Pedro Nava. Vance also referenced the recent U.S. Minerals Management Service scandal as a reason for scrutinizing the benefits claimed by oil companies.
Steve Greig, a Venoco representative, entered an impassioned plea to the council to leave mention of Venoco out of the resolution, particularly at a time when the company is seeking approval from the State Lands Commission to begin a full-field development project. This includes a pipeline designed eventually to replace the aging barge currently used to ferry oil from Platform Holly to the Ellwood Marine Terminal several times per month. “Our projects are not new exploration, and they are not new leases,” he said.
Hannah Eckberg, vice president of Get Oil Out-an organization created in response to the ’69 spill-called the county’s letter a “short sighted, industry-driven reaction,” and, referring to prominent media coverage of the county’s decision by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, warned councilmembers that “the world is watching.” The Environmental Defense Center weighed in, with attorney Nathan Alley pointing out that gasoline prices have actually gone down in the wake of Ike’s destruction of oil infrastructure, and calling the seeps a non-issue. “I don’t enjoy surfing in tar,” added Jessie Alstatt, science director and biologist for Santa Barbara Channel Keeper, “but I’ve come to accept that as part of the natural landscape of Goleta.”
The councilmembers’ debate was lively following the public comment period, as they discussed the resolution’s merits and demerits. Echoing sentiments voiced by Kristin Amyx of the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, Councilmember Eric Onnen, the lone dissenting vote on any further movement on the resolution, suggested that it is outside the Goleta City Council’s purview. “I don’t know that this resolution really furthers our goals and objectives,” he said. Mayor Bennett and Councilmember Jean Blois objected to the inclusion of Venoco’s name. Councilmembers Jonny Wallis and Roger Aceves supported the resolution as written, but also voted to have the language changed to a more general tone that would not single out specific entities.
“This resolution is extracted exactly from our General Plan,” said Aceves, in parallel with comments made by Planning Director Steve Chase, who has been consistent in his accusation that Venoco’s development plans run counter to the General Plan. “We do not get any benefit other than the impacts from additional drilling offshore,” he continued. “[Venoco’s] argument is that they can’t build a pipeline without more revenue, but I can’t buy that. This pipeline should have been there yesterday.”
The resolution has been returned to the city’s staff for fine tuning consistent with the suggestions made by the council, and will reappear on the September 30 agenda for another vote.