I had my chance and blew it. I didn’t choke. It was worse than that. I was nice.
It was the day before Christmas, and I was stuck in line at Vons on the Mesa. A guy walks in; he looks jarringly familiar. Big lantern jaw; soft blue eyes. A surfer-fit fifty-something. The T-shirt slogan suggests the wearer is tougher than death. Playful. Just another Mesa dude dad. “No,” my brain says, “that’s Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior!” Another part of my brain rebels, noting the conspicuous absence of bodyguards, and hollers back, “Can’t be!” The internal debate rages. Zinke’s wife, Lolita Zinke (née Hand), famously grew up in Hope Ranch. Ryan Zinke spends so much time in Santa Barbara that he qualifies as a part-time resident, a fact his press secretary, Heather Swift, has confirmed by denying it.
To settle the matter, I shout out, “Hey, Ryan!” like a long-lost buddy. He looks up, smiles, and shouts, “Hey!” back. Soon we’re shaking hands. He has big, beefy hands and a big, beefy handshake.
And that was it. I failed utterly to bring up the $40,000 photo-op helicopter ride Zinke improperly paid for with federal funds that were earmarked for wildland fire management and prevention. Admittedly, that’s made for some bad optics, particularly in light of our recent Thomas Fire. But really, what difference could that $40,000 actually have made?
Nor did I razz Zinke about the $12,000 travel bill he stuck the taxpayers with in June so he could charter an oil company’s private jet last summer instead of booking a much cheaper flight that was commercially available. The charter jet, it turns out, was necessary so Zinke could shoehorn into his busy schedule a pep talk to members of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, a brand-new hockey team that happens to be owned by Zinke’s political benefactor and part-time Santa Barbara resident, zillionaire Bill Foley.
Foley may not, in fact, own every other winery on the Central Coast, including the Firestones’ empire; it only seems that way. In recent years, Foley — who owns several elite retreats in Zinke’s home state of Montana — bundled $200,000 to help get Zinke elected to Congress there. I’m not one to begrudge Zinke and Foley their true bromance, but really, an ice hockey team in Las Vegas? That’s wrong on so many levels that I can’t count that high.
But it was Christmastime, with the Thomas Fire just recently corralled. I was depleted. I didn’t feel like speaking truth to power amid the jangle of shopping carts in some supermarket aisle. I caved nice.
Ryan Zinke, I am told by those who know him, is a genuinely nice guy. But where Zinke’s concerned, we’re living in a “post-nice” universe. Zinke’s Christmas present to the world, I would learn after our pseudo-encounter at Vons, was an order to rescind key safety regulations enacted by the Obama White House in 2016 to prevent the catastrophic explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010 from happening again.
As oil spills go, the Deepwater Horizon explosion of April 20, 2010, is still the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Eleven people were killed, their bodies never found. Seventeen more were seriously injured. There were 4.9 million barrels of oil lost; one million seabirds dead; one thousand dolphins and whales likewise; 1,100 miles of shore contaminated. It took 87 days to contain, so long that the CEO of British Petroleum (BP) — the responsible party — infamously lamented, “I’d like my life back.” BP would ultimately pay $20 billion in civil complaints and another $20 billion in cleanup and containment costs.
To put that in perspective, the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 — which did in fact change the world — let loose “just” around 100,000 barrels of spilled oil, killing 3,500 birds.
The Deepwater Horizon spill happened because its blowout preventer systems failed. Those systems, BP assured the world, had so many redundancies and backups as to render it 100 percent foolproof. As the New York Times would later report, “[C]rew members died and suffered terrible injuries because every one of the Horizon’s defenses failed on April 20. Some were deployed but did not work. Some were activated too late …. Some were never deployed at all.” The blowout alarm was activated nine minutes after the blowout had occurred. “Communications fell apart, warning signs were missed and crew members in critical areas failed to coordinate a response.” One emergency system, the Times noted, was controlled by 30 buttons.
In 2016, the Obama administration required that such offshore oil operations submit blowout prevention plans and technologies to licensed third parties to verify that they’d function as designed in the face of an extreme situation. The oil industry has complained this will cost an additional $228 million over 10 years. Zinke and the Trump administration regard this intrusion as a “potentially unduly” burden on energy producers at a time when the administration is seeking to establish “energy dominance.”
It’s worth noting the Horizon disaster effectively put Venoco — Santa Barbara’s quasi-homegrown oil company — out of business. In 2010, Venoco had an initiative on the ballot that would have allowed a major slant-drilling operation off the coast of Carpinteria to bypass all environmental review. It would have been a tough sell at any time. But with the vote taking place just months after the spill, Carpinteria voters vehemently rejected Venoco’s proposal by a margin of 70 to 30. The company never recovered.
Every 20 years, it seems, the United States experiences a massive oil spill. Every time, new regulations are adopted to reduce the risk. Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center said this is the only time since 1969 she’s seen anyone try to undo one of those fixes. “This is a first,” she said.
Maybe there’s a reasonable explanation. Maybe Zinke can have his people call mine and we can talk. Who knows? It might even be nice.