Coming full circle on offshore drilling

Times Staff Writer

Nearly 40 years after a disastrous oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast galvanized the nation and gave birth to the modern environmental movement, the county Board of Supervisors is poised to vote today in support of offshore drilling.

Proponents of the measure argue that America cannot turn away from a homegrown energy source at a time when the country is dangerously dependent on foreign oil and technology has made offshore oil drilling safer than ever.

Opponents, however, deride today’s scheduled vote asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to change state policy and “allow expanded oil exploration and extraction in the Santa Barbara County region” as an exercise in polls, politics and posturing.


The vote is largely symbolic -- the supervisors have no power to approve new offshore drilling, and Schwarzenegger has already come out against it. But it underscores both the issue’s volatility and this coastal county’s changing profile.

With gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon and a presidential election in the offing, even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and presumptive Democratic candidate Barack Obama in recent weeks have cautiously embraced the possibility of offshore drilling.

The vote is as much about the tension between inland and coast as it is about the price of a barrel of crude, which peaked at nearly $150 in July. Population and political power have been shifting away from the more liberal southern waterfront region, and the Board of Supervisors has a conservative, pro-industry majority for the first time in about a decade.

The result: An expected 3-2 vote to support increased oil drilling off the same beaches that were covered with the corpses of birds, seals and dolphins after more than 3 million gallons of crude oil leaked from an offshore drilling site in 1969.

Supervisor Brooks Firestone co-wrote today’s measure to voice support for offshore drilling. Just a year ago, however, he voted with the board majority in support of a federal moratorium on such drilling.

Back then, he said in an interview Monday, “we didn’t need the revenues. Property values were such that we were paying our own bills. We didn’t need the jobs. Employment was very sound. But the threat to the tourist industry, if we were going to have sticky beaches, that would be a disaster.”

Firestone has since changed his mind, he said, because “technology has preempted that last argument. We do need the jobs. We do need the money. We do need the oil.”

It is unclear, however, just how much oil is there and how much its recovery would benefit the cash-strapped county, which receives about $5.5 million in annual oil revenue.

A Board of Supervisors staff report quotes the federal Minerals Management Service, which estimates that there could be “technically recoverable, median-value reserves” of 5.74 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas in the area covered by the federal moratorium from the northern tip of San Luis Obispo County to the Mexican border. There is no separate breakdown for Santa Barbara County.

Although the revenue picture is complicated, Firestone said, “by gradually and sensitively expanding offshore exploration and drilling, the estimated revenue to the county runs in many millions of dollars.” In addition, he said, the new oil would help offset the 20 million barrels America uses each day.

Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, argues that because the region covered by the federal moratorium has yet to be explored, it is impossible to know just how much oil is actually there. She also noted that the benefits would be in the distant future.

Krop said the expected vote does not mark a sea change in the region but rather underscores the county’s long-term divisions. “The north county has always been pro-oil,” she said. “Santa Barbara city has been anti-oil for 40 years and is still anti-oil.”

Krop also notes that there are 36 oil leases off the county’s coastline -- granted between 1968 and 1984 -- that have never been developed by oil companies.

The main question raised before the board by opponents to the measure, she said, is: “Why should we be opening up brand new areas when there are already leases the oil companies are sitting on?”

Supervisor Salud Carbajal -- whose district includes much of the city of Santa Barbara, along with Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito -- calls lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling a “Trojan horse” that would allow oil companies to purchase leases that are not available to them now.

Today’s expected action, he said, “is a short-sighted, limited, symbolic vote that would be in keeping with the whole confusion on the national level that we can drill our way out of this, and that it’s the panacea.”

Congress first passed a national ban on new offshore drilling in 1981 and has renewed it annually ever since. In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush passed an executive order prohibiting such drilling until certain studies could be completed. President Clinton extended that prohibition.

The current political discussion was jump-started in July when oil prices peaked and President Bush rescinded the executive order. Congress still needs to act before any leasing can occur.

Shortly after Bush’s action, Schwarzenegger joined the governors of Oregon and Washington state to urge the federal government not to allow new offshore drilling and to ask that more money be spent to improve the health of the Pacific Ocean.

Which calls into question just what effect today’s Santa Barbara County vote could have. Still, the measure’s proponents say drilling is long overdue for reasons both economic and environmental.

Bruce Allen is co-founder of an advocacy group called SOS California, an initialism for “Stop Oil Seeps.” The group believes that the thousands of barrels of oil per year that naturally ooze up from the ocean floor are a serious form of pollution.

Its members also cite the work of UC Santa Barbara researchers -- including Bruce P. Luyendyk, a professor of marine geophysics -- to support their contention that oil drilling releases pressure that causes natural seeps in the region.

“Maybe there’s an argument that if you expand offshore oil production, you reduce the seeps and reduce marine pollution and provide California with more energy and the tax revenues to pay for the transition to solar energy and electric vehicles,” Allen said.

But in a letter to the Board of Supervisors in advance of the vote, Luyendyk warned against extrapolating the results of his group’s 1999 study and said that labeling naturally seeping oil “to be pollution is not so simple.”