PEED OFF: I woke up this morning wanting very much to smash something. Last night was very much the same, only more so. Perhaps like Bruce Banner, I’d been exposed to incidental gamma radiation that left me transformed into the Incredible Hulk. Sadly, I would discover, I’d morphed into the human manifestation of irritable bowel syndrome. Violently opposed to any form of self-examination, I sought external forces to blame. Public Enemy Number One on my scapegoat list is Measure P, the countywide ballot measure that will ban fracking, cyclic steam injection, and a whole host of other high-energy extraction techniques.
The debate over Measure P calls to mind two books that I loved way back in the day. The first is the Ross Thomas caper thriller The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. The other is Shoot Low, They Might Be Crawling.
In this context, the “fools” are the heedless do-gooders who hatched Measure P in the first place. Their tactical recklessness in pursuit of a ban on fracking — a good idea — and other high-energy oil extraction techniques — definitely cause for serious concern — calls to mind a stampede of lemmings leaping off the nearest cliff. This anger, however justified, needs to be balanced against the chronically criminal behavior of the oil industry here in Santa Barbara County. Perhaps the $7.6 million and mounting advertising jihad unleased by the Oil Industry is the gamma radiation triggering my unsettled condition.
All this calls to mind perhaps the central global policy question of our time: Is the enemy of your enemy your friend?
Let’s first dispense with the Water Guardians, midwives of Measure P. In their zeal to draw a bold line in the sand against Climate Change — who can argue with that? — they concocted Measure P. Against the vehement advice of every environmental activist within 250 miles, the Guardians collected 16,000 signatures in amazingly short order to qualify P for the November’s ballot. Most people thought they were signing an anti-fracking initiative. Never mind that there’s no fracking now taking place in Santa Barbara. Or that the county supes already passed an ordinance — not perfect, but okay — to control fracking. My real beef, however, has always been tactical. Why would anyone with the sense God gave a jackass put such an initiative on the 2014 ballot? This year’s election promises a record low voter turnout. Democratic strategists are freaking out for good reason. Young women, blacks, and Latinos are threatening to stay away from the polls in droves. If ever there was a time not to declare war against Big Oil, 2014 was it. Wait until the presidential election of 2016, the Water Guardians were repeatedly urged. That’s when Democratic turnout could trump Big Oil’s megabucks. But the Water Guardians, intoxicated by a cosmic sense of urgency, would not let such parochial details get in the way. Without even a campaign manager, they marched blithely into battle.
As infuriating as the Guardians are, the Oil Industry is clearly worse. When the dust settles, $10 million will have been spent spreading the Big Lie that Measure P will forever shut down all oil exploration and extraction in Santa Barbara County. Just not true. If the price of oil justifies the investment, the industry will find a way no matter how many hunka munka firefighters say otherwise.
Subscribing as I do to the “distrust but verify” school of history, I find it useful to remember how Unocal president Fred Hartley famously opined in the aftermath of Santa Barbara’s infamous Oil Spill of 1969, “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.” Unocal sprang out of the Orcutt oil patch, qualifying Hartley, I suppose, as one of our neighbors who we are told would never allow such things to happen. Yet somehow they do. The 1969 spill — ancient history to some — was the product of gross negligence in the first degree. It was not an “Act of God” or “Shit Happening.” In flagrant, cost-cutting defiance of emerging industry standards, Unocal left all but 350 feet of the 3,500-foot-deep well shaft uncovered in protective concrete casing. That deliberate decision was directly responsible for the 1969 blowout. That’s why Unocal settled the day the case was scheduled to go to trial with Attorney Barry Cappello for $9 million, a huge amount in those times. Lesser known is the 40-year underground spill that Unocal knew about and covered up that released as much as 20 million gallons of highly toxic oil-thinning chemicals, known as diluents, at its Guadalupe operations. Over the years, 17 toxic plumes migrated hither, thither, and yon offsite, with at least one making its way to the Santa Maria River and the Pacific Ocean. Over a four-year period, anywhere from 55-90 barrels a day leaked underground. Criminal charges were filed, search warrants issued, records seized. Although charges were dropped, Unocal agreed to pay $65 million in fines. The once sweet town of Avila Beach was razed and rebuilt. And 800,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, 45,000 dump trucks’ worth, had to be hauled off and dumped — insanely — in a landfill located on the banks of the Santa Maria River. There, underground water levels rise to such heights that they are said to “tea-bag” with landfill contents, raising uncomfortable water-quality questions that the Grand Jury assures us we should not be troubled by.
Lastly, I mention Greka, another of our North County “neighbors” whose hostility to environmental safeguard was so thoroughly documented the company was forced to change its name. In a 10-year period, county hazardous-material teams were called out to various Greka operations no less than 400 times. Greka’s cleanup and compliance efforts were marked by such chronic bad faith that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was forced to take over cleanup operations. One EPA superfund official noted at the time, “This is the worst oil company I’ve ever seen.”
Is the enemy of your enemy your friend? I have no friends. Maybe that’s why I want to smash things.