Under ridiculously sunny blue skies and with five oil derricks silhouetted hazily against a distant horizon, Santa Barbara’s newest congressmember Salud Carbajal announced this Saturday he would introduce a bill to ban any new oil leasing or drilling in federal waters off the coast of California. “We’ve seen time and time again the damage done to the environment by the threat of offshore oil drilling,” Carbajal declared to a cheering, enthusiastic crowd of about 125 well-wishers at a combination press conference and anti-Trump rally at Shoreline Park.
The timing of Carbajal’s event — announcing what’s billed as the California Clean Coast Act — coincided with the 48th anniversary of Santa Barbara’s now-legendary oil spill of 1969, in which 100,000 barrels escaped from a Union Oil’s Platform A located in federal waters six miles off the Santa Barbara coast. That spill is frequently credited for the start of the modern environmental movement. While that may be an overstatement, it certainly helped create the political propulsion that resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency nationally and many local organizations — the Community Environmental Council, the Environmental Defense Center, and Get Oil Out — that have defined Santa Barbara’s environmental movement.
While the administration of President Donald Trump has taken no steps to open up California’s coast to new development, Carbajal said Trump’s executive actions to greenlight two multi-state oil pipelines bitterly fought by environmentalists, as well as his selection of Rex Wayne Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO, as Secretary of State, gave serious cause for concern. “It is clear that the priorities of our president do not conform to those of the Central Coast’s,” he declared.
The most recent offshore oil and gas leasing plan — just completed by the federal government — included no new leasing off the Pacific, Atlantic or Arctic coasts. But Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, said the Trump administration could change that. “We are looking at whole new reality,” Krop said, waiting a few moments before finishing her thought with the word “show.” This drew laughs from the crowd, many dressed in blue shirts designating the ocean and a few pink “Pussy Hats” that were worn in abundance at the many Women’s Marches organized last week against Trump. “I wish it wasn’t funny,” Krop added.
Katie Davis of the Sierra Club noted that the Refugio Beach oil spill of May 2015, caused by a Plains All American pipeline rupture, ruined what had been one of the best snorkeling and diving spots along the Central Coast, if not the whole state. She noted that 3.3 million members of the public had commented on the federal government’s most recent five-year leasing plan, and said Trump would have his hands full if he sought to make any changes. President Barack Obama experienced political backlash, she noted, when he initially proposed opening up portions of the Atlantic to new leasing. In the face of that opposition, Obama opted to withdraw that proposal.
When Michael Lyon, chief executive for Get Oil Out, sought to remind the crowd of the fallout caused by the 1969 spill — which, he said, took place “two score and eight years ago”— some people shouted back, “We were there!” Michael Cohen of the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, a kayak tour business, argued that offshore oil development is as bad for the economy as it is for the environment. Cohen said he took 13,000 kayakers on rides last year, noting that Santa Barbara County saw 6.1 million visitors last year, boosting the local economy to the tune of $1.54 billion. The engine driving the tourism machine, he argued, was “a clean and green” ocean environment. By contrast, he noted the BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 caused a release of 200 million gallons of oil affecting 16,000 miles of coast and took 87 days to contain.
Carbajal’s bill has a steep uphill trajectory with passage unlikely. He is a freshman Congressmember of a party very much in the minority. None-the-less, Carbajal’s no-drill bill will play exceptionally well with his liberal-environmental base, activated, energized, and agitated as rarely before by Trump’s victory. Last week, 6,000 people took to Santa Barbara streets to protest the election results, far exceeding the expectations of police and event organizers both. More than 1,000 Santa Barbarans participated in the Los Angeles march as well, and a healthy smattering made it a point to march in Washington, D.C.
Since then, Santa Barbarans seeking expression and outlet for their anti-Trump sentiments have been congealing around two separate organizational trajectories. Coming out an eight year hibernation is Santa Barbara’s Progressive Coalition, and it will be focusing on local and statewide actions. Thus far, it’s held three organizing meetings.
Emerging to respond at the congressional level is a new group, Indivisible Santa Barbara, a local spin off of a national group founded by former Democratic congressional staff members seeking to replicate, in left-liberal fashion, the role played in the Republican Party by the Tea Party insurgents. Their approach is to hold members of Congress and Senate accountable via phone calls, e-mails, letters, town hall meetings, and focused, targeted protests. (Last week, for example, local members of Indivisible targeted Senator Dianne Feinstein — visiting her Los Angeles offices — in hopes of dissuading her from endorsing Trump’s nominee of Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Although Sessions is given exceptionally low marks by civil rights advocates and abortion rights supporters, Feinstein reportedly enjoys a cordial personal relationship with Sessions and was rumored to have been inclined to vote for his nomination. Ultimately, Feinstein moved to hold off the vote for one week, saying she needed time to let the messages raised during the many women’s marches percolate.) On Friday night, Santa Barbara’s Indivisible chapter hosted an introductory meeting at the Unitarian Society and 185 people showed up. Organizers planned for far less and had chairs for only 100.
Not everyone in Santa Barbara considers oil to be a four letter word. They, however, were not present at Saturday’s rally. The closest thing to a discouraging word was a question raised in challenging tone by a man suggesting most people attending Carbajal’s press conference got there in their cars. Many in the crowd disputed him, insisting they came by foot or bike. He, in turn, backed off, identifying himself as a solar panel installer, and asked Carbajal what steps he’d take to wean people off petrochemicals. Carbajal answered that he’d end tax breaks and other subsidies for the oil industry and put the federal government’s might behind alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and wave power.
In an interview conducted two weeks before the press conference, Bob Poole of Santa Maria — now with the Western States Petroleum Association — accused anti-oil crusaders in Santa Barbara of environmental hypocrisy. Oil development in Santa Barbara County, he argued, takes place under the most stringent of safeguards and protections. To deny oil development in Santa Barbara, he argued, forces oil companies to set up shop in countries with lax environmental restrictions and whose interests, he added, are often hostile to the United States government. Carbajal took exception to this line of thought, insisting that even with all of Santa Barbara safeguards, oil spills — like that of Plains All American Pipeline — still happen. “It would be nice if [Poole] would mention that,” Carbajal said, “but he never does.”
Plains All American, by the way, is the subject of criminal prosecution by both the Santa Barbara District Attorney and the California Attorney General. Plains has sought to have the trial moved to Kern County, insisting in legal papers that the avalanche of media attention the oil spill received two years ago was so unfair the company couldn’t get a fair trial in Santa Barbara County. Last week, Judge Jean Dandona rejected that argument. In analyzing the content of the news stories, Dandona found that the news stories submitted by Santa Barbara media outlets were fair and provided both sides of the story. To the extent there was any bias, she added, it was reflected in national and international media outlets.