The January 1973 cover of National Lampoon magazine featured a disembodied hand holding a revolver to the head of a nervous-looking canine with this headline: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

The famous, bad-taste-costs-no-more image came to mind as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week released his latest budget plan, which posed a no-win dilemma for many environmentalists. Grabbing $140 million from the California State Parks system—about one-third of its $431 million budget—Schwarzenegger said he’s counting on approval of Santa Barbara’s controversial Tranquillon Ridge drilling project for the money to backfill the cut. In other words, if he doesn’t get his way on offshore oil, state parks will take the hit.

Capitol Letters

“Pegging the fiscal future of the state parks system to offshore oil drilling sets up an unacceptable tradeoff between coastal protection and park reservation,” said Elizabeth Goldstein of the California State Parks Foundation, adding that parks were being “held hostage in the budget process.”

As a political matter, the governor’s third attempt to push through a new state lease, on behalf of the Houston-based PXP oil company, considerably raises the stakes on the issue. The oil versus parks formulation is one of several key changes Schwarzenegger made in earlier versions of the twice-defeated project; the move is aimed in part at undercutting an ad hoc coalition of more than 100 environmental groups that oppose his oil plan.

The project has caused a bitter family feud between the coalition and Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center. The EDC last year reached a confidential agreement with PXP, which the group claims includes conditions that will lead, within 15 years, to the end of much of the drilling off the county coast. Foes say, however, the project sets a dangerous precedent for breaching the California Sanctuary Act, and sends a political message that drill-baby-drill advocates will use to support their pro-oil position.

Last week, hours after Schwarzenegger released his proposal, EDC “expressed its appreciation” to him for his new push for the T-Ridge proposal: “We look forward to the opportunity to have this project reconsidered by the State Lands Commission,” said Linda Krop, EDC’s chief counsel.

Others were less sanguine.

“The governor truly has sunk to a new low by making the parks system, the jewel of California, reliant on new offshore oil drilling,” said Assemblymember Pedro Nava, who has led legislative opposition to the PXP plan. He added that linking parks and offshore oil was like “offering a rent reduction to a victim of domestic violence in exchange for forcing them to go back and live with the abuser.”

A key element in EDC’s political calculation is that the governor called for the project to be reheard by the State Lands Commission, historically the normal venue for such projects. Although the commission turned down PXP last year, Krop said she believes the group can address concerns previously expressed by commissioners, including questions about the enforceability of future dates when the oil company would be forced to quit drilling from four existing offshore platforms.

But Nava quickly noted that the governor’s budget document explicitly states that if the PXP plan is “not approved by the commission, legislation will be necessary,” suggesting Schwarzenegger might well take another run at gaining approval through Legislature.

What they’re saying: The offshore issue is crucial in the Democratic primary race for the 35th Assembly district seat, where coastal advocate Susan Jordan said that, “The hypocrisy of this governor cannot be overstated.” She not only blasted him for his new parks-oil budget plan, but also assailed the overall PXP proposal as “a risky, secret negotiated deal … the camel’s nose under the tent, the Pandora’s box that has opened up the California coast to the highest oil bidder.”

“It’s time for the few environmental groups who supported this to renounce the tactics of this governor and this company and return to their original mission of protecting the coast,” Jordan added.

Her chief rival, City Councilmember Das Williams, however, expressed his continuing support for the PXP-EDC agreement, and sought to split the difference on other elements of Schwarzenegger’s budget: “The ultimate decision must remain in the hands of the State Lands Commission,” he said. “This should not be tied to state parks funding and I will not support any legislative effort to circumvent the State Lands Commission.”

“My goal has always been … to bring a definitive end to all oil drilling, period,” Williams added in an email. “It is false to attack EDC … as taking a pro-oil position. That undermines its efforts to end existing drilling.”

It’s on.


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