Dog’s Nose Under the Tent

The Angry Poodle on the Latest Tranquillon Ridge Deal

TRANK RIDGE, TAKE II: As you turn 40, it gets that much harder to pretend to be what you probably never were. Some people respond by replaying their same old tricks. Others attempt to shift gears and move on. But as Santa Barbara’s environmental movement — now celebrating its 40th birthday with a certified midlife crank fest — can attest, this ain’t always easy. It’s not merely a matter of old habits dying hard. The expectations of friends can be more constricting than any straitjacket yet devised.

Angry Poodle

By now we’ve heard it a zillion times: Like ranch dressing, the Motel 6, and the Egg McMuffin, the Environmental Movement and Earth Day were born right here in Santa Barbara. In the beginning — or 1969, whichever came first — there was the Great Oil Spill. Ever since, Santa Barbara environmentalists have just said “No” to Big Oil — time and time again — and the world has been a better, cleaner place because of it. As such, Santa Barbara has morphed into an international icon of violated virtue, a cautionary cudgel to beat back the predatory intentions of the petroleum industry. And for the most part, it’s been enormously effective. The California State Lands Commission, for example, hasn’t permitted a single new drilling in state waters since 1968. Each and every time the State Lands Commissioners said “No,” they cited Santa Barbara’s infamous Oil Spill of 1969. As a political strategy, “Just Say No” has worked wonders keeping new offshore oil rigs from going up. But when it comes to shutting down existing offshore operations, it’s been worse than useless. And this brings us to the latest installment on Tranquillon Ridge — the oil controversy with more lives than a thousand cats — and the knock-down-drag-out it’s sparked among former friends and allies in the enviro camp.

This Wednesday, activists associated with Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Get Oil Out! (GOO!), and Citizens Planning Association (CPA) unveiled their new-and-improved agreement with PXP, an oil company out of Houston, seeking a new lease on life — and approval to drill into sub-sea formations known as Tranquillon Ridge — from its existing platforms already operating near Pt. Conception. Lois Capps, the bona fide Mama Bear of the South Coast Democratic machine, weighed in to give the deal her Good House Keeping Seal of approval. Boiled down, the new deal is identical in many key regards to what was first proposed nearly two years ago; it’s just more enforceable and 100-percent more transparent. Whether it’s enforceable enough, however, remains the $2-billion question.

According to the deal, EDC, CPA, and GOO! will support — yes, support — PXP’s application to expand its current drilling operations located in federal waters into adjacent oil fields located in state waters. That’s absolutely unprecedented. In exchange, PXP will agree to stop all drilling — from four offshore platforms — within 14 years. That, too, is unprecedented. No oil company has ever agreed to such a drop-dead date before. PXP has also agreed to dismantle two onshore oil-and-gas processing facilities in Lompoc, also huge. Without these on the ground, would-be future oil operators would have to build brand new facilities of their own — assuming they were approved at some future date — a prohibitively expensive undertaking. In addition, there’s the 4,000 acres of land PXP says it will donate to the public trust, the $1.5 million it will pay for new clean-fuel buses, the $100 million it will pay the cash-strapped state of California before production, or the $1.8 billion it claims the state will reap in oil royalties over the project’s 14-year life span.

Some environmentalists, however, charge that the deal is too good to be true. Susan Jordan (now running for State Assembly), her husband Pedro Nava (now occupying the Assembly seat she’s hoping to occupy), and coastal commissioner Sara Wan, among others, have gone on the warpath, charging that the deal is legally unenforceable. The federal government, they claimed, would never tolerate any arrangement that impinged on its ability to continue collecting oil revenues, and that’s exactly what the drop-dead date would do. Worse yet, they said, it sends a dangerously mixed message about oil drilling off the coast. If Santa Barbara — birthplace to the environmental movement — gives PXP the green light, they ask, what message does that send to Republican lawmakers in Sacramento or even as far away as Florida? When the Tranquillon Ridge deal was before the State Lands Commission last January, the Just-Say-No contingent successfully killed it, despite its strong support from the eco-establishment. (Sine then, the Gubernator has tried every dirty trick in the book to ram the deal through backdoor channels, but failed.) That’s in large measure because the terms and conditions of the arrangement had been kept confidential, reportedly at the insistence of PXP. As a policy matter, such secrecy is indefensible; as a tactical matter, it’s suicidal. When the deal was subsequently — and inevitably — leaked, it turned out PXP paid EDC $100,000 in attorneys fees and EDC agreed to testify on PXP’s behalf. Critics of the plan charged EDC sold its soul to the devil. Given EDC’s long history fighting oil, it’s a particularly lame and unfair charge. But secret deals are always dangerous to enter into, and the people at EDC — more than anyone — should have known better.

By the time you read this, the new details of the PXP deal should be posted online. Big improvement. To address enforceability concerns, the new deal requires PXP to surrender its offshore leases after 14 years. And there’s nothing in federal law that prohibits that. In addition, PXP has reportedly agreed to pay the feds for any lost royalties, if it comes to that. Were PXP to keep drilling past the 14-year deadline, the new contract explicitly gives the State Lands Commission and the state Attorney General authority to enforce the contract. Finally, if PXP continues drilling past the drop-dead date, the contract requires the company to donate all profits derived from that drilling to an environmental restoration project to be selected by EDC, CPA, and GOO! Paul Thayer, a honcho with the State Lands Commission, said the new deal seems to be better than the first — though he hasn’t seen the final draft — but still not good enough. What would stop the federal government’s Minerals Management Services — which collects offshore oil royalties — from suing? The state, he said, can’t enter into a deal that infringes upon a contract already entered into by the feds. And then, he added, there’s the 40 years of just saying no. Do we really want to chuck that overboard?

If saying yes — in a strategically limited fashion — really rids us of a major industrial operation off the coast that could otherwise fester indefinitely — as PXP clearly would — I’m okay with risking a mixed message or two. Existing state law provides enough protection to limit the precedents fallout to just one site —the one PXP already controls. As to enforceability, I’d say let the feds sue and the sooner the better. If the PXP deal is cock-blocked in the courts, we’re right back to where we are right now. Nothing ventured, nothing lost. But there’s no guarantee the deal will fail. To not explore something just because it might, well, that’s not environmentalism. In the meantime, here’s to cranky old friends, and Happy 40th Birthday.


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