To paraphrase a line from the Fat Man in 'The Maltese Falcon' (pictured left), people who don't know how to talk don't know when to shut up. And Jack Cohan defintiely knew when to shut up. | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

JACK BE NIMBLE:  Over the years, I was lucky to share a few drinks with Jack Cohan. I wish now that I had shared a few more. It was the mid-1980s. More oil had just been discovered off our coast than anywhere in the United States except in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Exxon was eager to get in the game. As Santa Barbara’s senior deputy counsel for energy projects, it was Jack’s job to lead the county’s charge against Exxon.

And unlike many who have since worked in that office, Cohan was not averse to talking to reporters. In fact, he enjoyed it. To paraphrase a line from the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon, people who don’t like to talkdon’t know when to shut up. Jack always knew when to shut up.

If you’re going to have a “Jack and the Beanstalk” moment, it’s a good idea to bring along someone actually named Jack.

Cohan grew up in Maine, graduated from West Point, flew in the Air Force, and became a world-class sailor. He rode horses better than John Wayne. All that conspired to make Cohan tough and handsome in the way some guys are who’ve been out in the sun too long. He sported a messy mop of hair the color of scotch; smart, squinty eyes; and a body that looked like beef jerky wallpapered with shoe leather.

It’s a look, I am told, some women find irresistible.

I bring up Cohan for a number of reasons. First, he died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 92. That makes him too old to have been a Baby Boomer and too young to be part of the Greatest Generation

Second, I bring him up because Jack wound up winning that fight against Exxon — alongside three of the five county supervisors and an extremely unified and effective environmental movement.

Lastly, I bring up Cohan because so many people his age — and much younger — are now dropping like flies without leaving their stories behind. Those stories matter; our collective memories are fast-burning fuses. 

We need to capture those memories so we can remind ourselves that the impossible is frequently right within our grasp. That giants can, in fact, be beaten. That what we need is not as ridiculous and unattainable as we allow ourselves to be persuaded by those who sound much more reasonable than they, in fact, really are. 

Don Cornett | Credit: PBS News Hour Youtube

Beware of reasonable-sounding men.

Back then, Exxon had agreed to 180 conditions demanded by the County of Santa Barbara to permit the massive oil and gas processing plant it needed to build along the Gaviota Coast. Then the county added Number 181. Cohan insisted the county had jurisdiction to regulate the air pollution Exxon generated miles off the coast in federal waters. While technically out of county jurisdiction, Cohan argued, Exxon’s huge offshore air pollution was coming onshore. As a result, Santa Barbara County could not hope to meet its federal clean air standards. 

Exxon’s head honcho — a colorful quote machine named Don Cornett — famously told the county supervisors, “You can stick to your agreement. Or you can stick it in your ear.” With that, Cornett stalked out of the supervisors’ chambers.

The county’s position was so clearly unreasonable that not only did Exxon attack it, but the federal Department of the Interior joined them. The Feds made money leasing offshore oil tracts and even more money when those tracts got pumped. 

Ultimately, the Department of Commerce sided with Santa Barbara. How that played out behind the scenes remains murky. If only I had shared another drink with Cohan.

Cornett would soon be dispatched to Alaska, where, shortly thereafter, an Exxon oil tanker pilot — then tanked on five double vodka martinis — tanked his tanker, spilling 11 million gallons or 257,000 barrels of oil in a disaster known as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Naturally, Exxon has hated Santa Barbara ever since.

Clean up from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. | Credit: PH2 Poche/Wikimedia Commons

The bad ink caused by the Valdez spill, coincidentally, helped “persuade” Exxon to ship its oil by pipeline in Santa Barbara County. First, that pipeline was built, owned, and operated by a company called Celeron. Eventually, it was bought by All-American Pipeline. And in 2015 — as we all know — the All American Pipeline ruptured. That spill was caused by criminally negligent maintenance and repairs. That is a statement of legal fact, not hyperbole. That disaster effectively put every single oil company operating off the Gaviota Coast out of business. Including Exxon. 

Today, Exxon is playing three-card monte with the county. Here’s its spiel: Exxon allegedly sold all its Santa Barbara assets, including its offshore oil platforms, to an allegedly new company called Sable a couple of years ago. Sable bought those assets from Exxon with money Exxon lent it.

Credit: Harry Green –

This has rallied environmentalists, the county supervisors, and the County Planning Commission to bring back its air pollution defense: If Exxon’s facilities are allowed to restart, the greenhouse gases generated here in Santa Barbara County will go through the roof. By the roof, they mean 323,162 metric tons a year more. That’s by far the single largest source of air pollution in the county. And that doesn’t count the emissions generated from the offshore platforms now owned by Sable. 

Admittedly, the county’s position is not reasonable. Exxon and the other oil companies were victims of the pipeline spill, not its cause. They shouldn’t be punished twice for All American’s transgressions. 

As global temperatures rise, the rules of oil warfare are heating up. The Vermont state legislature just enacted a law holding oil companies financially responsible for damage caused by climate change. 

And in Texas, Exxon is suing shareholder activists who pushed a resolution calling on the company to accelerate its response to climate change even after the activists agreed to drop it. 

So, stay tuned. And to Jack Cohan, I have only one thing to say: Cheers! 

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