Governor Schwarzenegger totally blindsided his alleged allies in Santa Barbara’s environmental community this week, when he delivered a sudden and unexpected coup de grâce to the Tranquillon Ridge project.
“Arnold loves to do that—it’s part of his control issue,” former assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson said of the governor’s surprise move. “Consistency and rationality have never bothered him in the least.”
As a political matter, the long and fiercely debated T-Ridge plan was most likely doomed from the instant an offshore rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day. The horrific images of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and of the huge metastasis of oil that still pours from beneath the sea and is bearing down on three states, served as a vivid reminder of the enormous stakes of offshore drilling, to the detriment of any new project, no matter how environmentally well intentioned.
Even at that, however, Schwarzenegger’s out-of-the-blue abandonment of the project, after nearly two years of fighting for it, was breathtaking in its suddenness, coming just three days after his administration had strongly affirmed its backing for T-Ridge.
Many Santa Barbara environmentalists, led by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), viewed the T-Ridge proposal—negotiated to exchange a long-term oil company promise to cease drilling in nearby federal waters for a short-term lease to allow drilling into state waters from an existing platform—as an elegant solution that would ultimately scale back current levels of offshore development. A Schwarzenegger spokesperson affirmed the Administration’s support of that precise position last Friday, when a San Francisco Chronicle reporter asked if the Gulf Coast environmental cataclysm had changed the governor’s mind about T-Ridge:
“This doesn’t really change anything, because we’re looking at a platform that’s already in operation,” the spokesperson said. “If anything, this makes the T-Ridge project that much more important, because it would put a sunset date on when it shuts down.”
But on Monday, during a Sacramento press conference called to discuss the upcoming fire season, Schwarzenegger suddenly announced he was withdrawing his support because of the Deepwater Horizon spill: “You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster; you say to yourself, ‘why would we want to take on that kind of risk?’”
“We had absolutely no idea” that the governor planned to make such a statement, said EDC Chief Counsel Linda Krop, who had worked with the Administration’s Department of Finance on details of T-Ridge but who learned of Schwarzenegger’s comments only after he made them. “We were completely surprised.”
For those who have spent much time watching or working with the governor, the spectacle of him performing a 180 degree flip-flop in public, without bothering to inform erstwhile allies in the process, is not unprecedented—just ask fellow Republicans who have been shocked in the past by his embrace of tax increases or regulations on business that flew squarely in the face of his own rhetoric. Nor, it should be said, is it a complete surprise that the movie-action-hero governor would be swayed in an important policy decision by something he saw on television.
What is truly baffling, however, is that in choosing now to oppose the T-Ridge project on grounds it allegedly could lead to more oil spills, Schwarzenegger has categorically rejected the entire environmental argument in its favor, which he had promoted for the past two years. With almost no explanation, the governor now makes the very case against it, as articulated by environmentalists who most bitterly oppose T-Ridge, such as Santa Barbara Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who declared Monday that he “welcomes the governor’s change of heart.”
As a practical matter, Schwarzenegger’s action leaves no pathway for the T-Ridge project to proceed. PXP, the oil company that negotiated an agreement with EDC, would have to file a new application with the State Lands Commission to move the proposal forward. (A representative of the Houston-based energy company did not respond to a request for comment reacting to the governor’s announcement.) But the governor’s new position means the company lacks even a single supporter on the three-member commission, which turned down an earlier version of the project on a 2-1 vote.
“We’re taking a step back,” said Jackson, who has advocated on behalf of the project among environmentalists statewide. “Our goal remains the same—the goal is to get rid of offshore oil.”