For decades it has been a bipartisan political staple -- the jaunt to the beaches of Santa Barbara to profess opposition to oil drilling at the spot where a massive 1969 spill despoiled sea life and ocean waters, launching the modern environmental movement.
With visits here and elsewhere, Republicans Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger used their environmental credentials to win the governor’s office. George Bush the elder announced his support for a delay in oil drilling leases en route to victory in November 1988, when he became the last Republican to win the state in a presidential contest.
John McCain returned to Santa Barbara this week not to assert his opposition to offshore drilling -- as he did when he ran for president in 2000 -- but to make the calculated gamble that high gas prices have trumped voters’ desire to protect the environment.
His newfound support for allowing states to decide whether to drill offshore, announced last week in Texas, carries risk. Having spent much of his campaign trying to distance himself from the current President Bush and Republican orthodoxy, McCain has now changed his tune to theirs on a hugely symbolic issue that has long helped motivate the independent voters whose support he needs to claim the White House.
Diana Cuttrell of Santa Barbara is one of them, and she fiercely opposes McCain’s new stance.
“It’s not going to solve the problem,” she said of McCain’s proposal to lift the federal moratorium on sea drilling. “It’s a Band-Aid, basically. It’s just pretty idiotic.”
In a visit to Fresno on Monday, McCain did not bring up offshore drilling, instead emphasizing alternative energy sources such as alcohol fuels and announcing a $300-million challenge to develop a more efficient electric car battery. In response to a question, he said he still did not favor drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because it was pristine. When pressed, he declined to say whether the California coast was any less so, but argued that offshore drilling was safe.
“I envision they would be somewhat further offshore but that would be, again, a decision by the people of this state,” said McCain, who has said his views changed because of the impact gas prices are having on everyday Americans and concerns about the nation’s dependence on foreign powers.
McCain plans to take part in an environmental panel here today with Schwarzenegger, who spent much of his gubernatorial runs touting hydrogen-based cars. Schwarzenegger, who endorses McCain, forcefully brushed aside the unofficial GOP presidential nominee’s position last week.
“We made a decision a while back to say no drilling off our shores in California, and we are serious about that and we’re not going to change that, no matter who is recommending other things,” Schwarzenegger said, pressing for alternative fuel solutions.
California has much more virulently opposed offshore drilling than have other states. Political analysts, including Republicans, said McCain’s stance suggested a trade-off -- winning votes in key Midwest states on the issue at the cost of losing them in California.
“McCain is essentially conceding what would have been an uphill fight in California in order to strengthen his opportunities in states like Michigan and Ohio,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who worked for McCain in 2000. He added: “Whether this plays in Santa Barbara is much less important than how it plays in Columbus, Ohio.”
To a large degree, the nation’s environmental leanings were sealed in January 1969, when an oil line blowout thrust 3 million gallons of syrupy crude into the Pacific. More than 10,000 birds died, too covered with muck to fly. Sea grasses were smothered. The sludge was so thick it stilled the ocean’s waves. America watched it unfold on television.
Out of the disaster, the largest of its kind until the Exxon Valdez marred Alaska’s Prince William Sound 20 years later, came a national movement. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act later that year, and the state followed suit. Moratoriums have protected much of the coast in recent years, despite Bush’s support for drilling. And opposition in California to offshore exploration has come to be largely bipartisan, with Democrats and Republicans competing over environmental bona fides.
“It’s not an issue here, it’s a deeply held value,” said consultant Don Sipple, who worked for Wilson and many other GOP candidates and lives in Montecito. “People will value an ocean more than they will oil platforms . . . and it’s just not going to change.”
Los Angeles Times polls show that, in California, opposition to offshore drilling has not weakened even during past energy crises. But new national polls have shown that the country, burdened by exploding gas prices, supports drilling in sensitive areas.
A Gallup Poll released last week said that 57% of Americans approved drilling offshore and in wilderness areas. The results were highly partisan: Republicans backed drilling by an 80% to 18% margin, while Democrats opposed it, 59% to 39%. Independents, a target of both McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, approved of drilling by a 56% to 43% margin.
It is the last group whose reactions to McCain’s switch will be key. In California, independents have consistently sided with Democrats against drilling. Kieran Mahoney, a Republican consultant in New York, pointed to a recent poll in Florida showing support there for offshore drilling.
“The wings have been where they have always been,” he said, referring to emphatic Democrats and Republicans. “I’m persuaded that the center of the country has moved on this.”
In the past, the debate pitted environmentalists against the oil companies -- hardly a fair fight, even in the best of times. But with gas prices spiking, Mahoney said, the mood has changed.
“People are appreciating the feeling of scarcity and the fact of scarcity,” he said.
McCain’s argument to independents will be that he feels the economic plight of voters and is willing to take steps necessary to lower gas prices -- even if his own advisors have acknowledged that offshore drilling would have only a minimal and distant impact.
“What McCain is trying to do, maybe not so much in California but in the other states, is to appeal to moderate voters that he understands their pain,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California and a longtime opinion pollster. “He’s trying to create the perception that maybe Obama is not so concerned about the financial circumstances right now of average people.”
In Santa Barbara, City Councilman Das Williams was sharply critical of McCain.
“What we are seeing is just a shameless amount of opportunism from Mr. McCain on this,” he said. “I am somebody who had a lot of respect for him before he ran for president. He is pounding on this because of how much people are hurting.”
Voters’ views, meanwhile, were mixed even among Republicans. Dollie Speights, a Republican real estate investor, said McCain’s change was “a good thing.”
“The technology they have now is so amazing that they leave very little footprint.”
But another Republican, Pat Bishop, called McCain’s stance a mistake. “I don’t want any more of those ugly derricks out there,” she said.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Santa Barbara and Fresno contributed to this report.