Santa Barbara fumes over drill plan

Times Staff Writers

John McCain came to California promoting an array of ideas to spur the market for clean cars and otherwise reduce carbon emissions.

But in this coastal city, the site of a disastrous oil spill in 1969, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was dogged by critics at nearly every turn for his recent embrace of offshore drilling.

During an environmental round table Tuesday morning at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, McCain endured a lecture on his new position from one of the panelists invited by his campaign -- an anomaly in a tightly controlled political effort.


Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, repudiated McCain’s position on offshore drilling, as well his advocacy for building 45 nuclear power plants by 2030.

Before an audience of about 200, Feeney told McCain that he appreciated the candidate’s rhetoric on balancing the nation’s energy needs with environmental concerns, but that he didn’t understand “how it’s not compromising our environmental standards to propose a crash program to build more nuclear power plants.”

In criticizing McCain’s offshore drilling plan, Feeney said it would be unwise to “drain America’s offshore oil and gas reserves as quickly as possible in the hopes of driving down the cost of gasoline” when it would take years before those resources could be extracted.

“We should be saving as much as possible the oil resources of this country, because we are going to need those for a long, long time to come, and we should be mostly focusing on reducing demand and improving efficiency,” Feeney said.

Outside the museum, several dozen environmental protesters denounced McCain, who was finishing a two-day California swing. The protesters carried anti-drilling signs and photographs of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, which emptied 3 million gallons of crude into the ocean and killed thousands of birds.

McCain didn’t escape opposition to his drilling position even at his fundraiser Monday night at a luxurious Santa Barbara home with ocean views. Protesters gathered on two sailboats in the distance, shouting insults, and one of his own supporters at the fundraiser told him winning California was going to be “a tough haul” with his drilling stance.

McCain supporter Dan Secord, an alternate member of the California Coastal Commission, said Santa Barbara residents are “really kind of goosey here about oil spills.” Gesturing toward the ocean, he told McCain, “We ask you to look out there to the south and the southeast and remember the greatest environmental catastrophe that’s hit this state and then balance that with the notion of winning California.”

The skepticism largely overshadowed the ideas McCain aired. He touched on new plans to prod the government to add low-emissions cars and trucks to its huge fleet of vehicles, as well as to require federal buildings to meet higher energy-efficiency standards. McCain also repeated the call he made Monday to award a $300-million prize to the inventor of a next-generation battery that could power electric vehicles.

Although McCain encountered skepticism here, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll suggested that there might be support nationally for drilling offshore and in other environmentally sensitive regions. Fifty-five percent of respondents favored drilling in “environmentally important” areas with “proper controls,” and 13% said drilling should be allowed in such areas even if damage might result.

McCain’s energy agenda was criticized by his Democratic rival for the presidency, Barack Obama. The Illinois senator, on an environment- related campaign trip of his own to Las Vegas, spoke to a few dozen renewable energy workers, and he visited an array of solar panels in a parking lot. The setting underscored his call for spending $150 billion over 10 years to promote such energy sources as solar and wind power. Obama also has urged raising the fuel-mileage standards for cars and trucks.

He contrasted his plans with McCain’s, labeling the Republican’s ideas an assortment of short-term political gimmicks that would barely cut gas prices or curb oil consumption. Obama zeroed in on McCain’s support for, among other ideas, a summer suspension of the federal gasoline tax.

“I realize that gimmicks like the gas-tax holiday and offshore drilling might poll well these days, because people are desperate,” Obama said, citing gasoline prices that have risen above $4 a gallon. “But I’m not running for president to do what polls well.”

Obama also lambasted McCain for wanting to open more federal land to oil exploration when energy companies are not fully exploiting the drilling rights they already have. And he cited McCain’s support for storing nuclear waste at the remote Nevada desert site of Yucca Mountain, a highly unpopular proposal in the political battleground state, where the Arizona senator will campaign today.


Reston reported from Santa Barbara and Finnegan from Las Vegas.