LAST-MINUTE DESPERATION: Sherlock Holmes famously fretted about “the dog that didn’t bark,” but the dogs I worry most about are the ones barking in my face. The most obvious case in point is the $60,000 that an oil-industry front group — Keep Santa Barbara Working — announced it’s raising to get Santa Ynez businessman Bruce Porter elected as 3rd District Supervisor. Their timing was impeccably perverse, choosing May 19 — the anniversary of the Refugio Oil Spill — to file campaign reports detailing how Vaquero Energy just donated $30,000 to help elect Porter, and the California Independent Petroleum Association $25,000.
The first commandment of Santa Barbara politics is to never accept money from oil companies. The second commandment is to not tell reporters you won’t take oil money when a tape recorder is running, as Porter did.
Making matters even worse still, the same day Keep Santa Barbara Working announced it was operating a cha-ching machine on Porter’s behalf, District Attorney Joyce Dudley and Attorney General Kamala Harris celebrated the anniversary of the Line 901 rupture by filing 46 criminal charges against Plains All American Pipeline. The federal agency responsible for pipeline safety also got into the act, issuing a 500-page report detailing the thousand-and-one ways Plains repeatedly ignored information about pipeline corrosion that caused the blowout. Pipeline safety tests dating back to 2007 show corrosion was a big problem on Line 901 and getting much worse at an alarming rate. The report found Plains repeatedly failed to take steps along the way to determine just how bad it was.
Plains’ emergency response plans, it turns out, failed to even acknowledge the presence of the nearby culvert through which the leaked Plains oil escaped under the freeway, under the railroad tracks, and ultimately out to sea. In what I consider the single most damning sentence in the entire report, the investigators concluded, “The response plan did not have a response strategy that considered the presence of culverts.”
Not all oil operators, it should be acknowledged, were as irresponsible as Plains. For example, the 500-page report shows Venoco quickly recognized there was a pipeline safety problem May 19 and almost immediately decided to hold back oil it had hoped to transport that day. It also notified Plains within four minutes of this.
If you wonder why the California Independent Petroleum Association cares so much about Santa Barbara politics, don’t. Whichever political faction controls the 3rd Supervisorial District dictates which way the political teeter-totter of county government tilts. With four major onshore oil and gas projects now in the county’s planning pipeline, the oil and gas stakes could not be higher. We’re looking at hundreds of new wells, all reliant on cyclic steaming, a technology notorious for its high energy needs and big carbon footprints. In one of the proposals, the high-pressure steam injected into the ground for 96 wells slated for the Orcutt Hills will generate so many major surface oil leaks that county energy planners have decreed the project a Class I environmental threat to surface waters and critters who rely on them. This project — like the other three — will all but certainly go before the county supervisors.
Of the five candidates running for the 3rd District — which encompasses the wine tasting rooms of the Santa Ynez Valley, the beer pong parlors of Isla Vista, and prescription med dens of western Goleta — the two runners are Porter — who touts an impressive military career — and Joan Hartmann, a lawyer/academic/tree hugger who touts her stint with the EPA. Who do you think the oil companies don’t want?
When first asked about the oil-industry money, Porter professed surprise. “I have no knowledge of any outside effort on my behalf,” he emailed. “If it’s happening, it’s outside my ability to see or control.” Technically, of course, Porter’s correct. Independent expenditure committees, by law, are legally separate entities from the campaign committees for candidates they support. Legally, no communication or cooperation is allowed between the two. Still, I’m skeptical Porter was as in dark as he claimed. After all, Porter’s campaign manager, Sean Duffy, worked for the oil-industry-bankrolled campaign to demolish Measure P — the ill-fated, ill-considered anti-fracking initiative on the November 2014 ballot — as ground ops coordinator and communications director on the South Coast. To defeat Measure P and a host of other anti-fracking measures that year, California’s oil industry raised and spent in excess of $7 million.
Porter added that he was “puzzled” I was asking about the oil money when I didn’t show similar curiosity about the $30,000 in late campaign donations Hartmann had received from public employee unions. Fair enough. For the record, Hartmann has received $30,000 from two SEIU Locals and another $1,500 from an electricians’ union. That, for the record, is big money. In an interview with Independent reporter Kelsey Brugger, Porter vowed to reject money from “a large public service union” and from “large industry,” specifically oil. But as of this Tuesday, things changed. That’s when Porter’s campaign accepted a $25,000 donation from the Santa Barbara County Deputies Sheriffs’ Association (DSA). I didn’t ask Porter how he justified this one. Maybe because the word “service” doesn’t appear anywhere in the DSA name, the union doesn’t technically qualify as a “large public service union.” Aren’t all peace officers sworn “to defend and to serve?”
I’m sure Sherlock Holmes would have something to say. In the meantime, watch out for dogs, barking or otherwise.