Santa Barbara County supervisors rethink stance on offshore drilling

Eight months after their surprising embrace of offshore oil drilling, Santa Barbara County supervisors are set today to resume their decades-old opposition to the practice.

Their 3-2 decision last August to request that the state allow expanded drilling was a startling about-face in eco-conscious Santa Barbara, where a disastrous 1969 oil spill triggered the modern environmental movement. It fueled calls to loosen environmental restrictions and added weight to the rallying cry “Drill, baby, drill!” chanted by Republicans at their 2008 presidential convention as voters grew increasingly angry over high gas prices.

But now the board’s majority has shifted from Republican to Democratic, the Obama administration has taken over in Washington, and the price of crude oil has plunged from nearly $150 a barrel last summer to about $52 a barrel on Monday. With an Interior Department hearing on offshore drilling planned next week in San Francisco, the supervisors are to consider a resolution urging a ban on new offshore drilling.

“It’s definitely a reversal,” said Supervisor Janet Wolf. “It became politically charged to point to our county as a place that was willing to take another look at offshore drilling. Now we’re saying no, that’s not the case.”


Wolf, with Supervisor Salud Carbajal, introduced the measure. Doreen Farr, who replaced pro-drilling Brooks Firestone on the five-member board after November’s election, said she will support their measure.

“I feel strongly that we’ve been a national leader in conservation and alternative energy,” Farr said. “That’s the direction we need to go. We can’t drill our way out of this.”

As gas prices soared toward $5 a gallon last year, Congress and the Bush administration lifted long-standing bans on expanding offshore drilling. Two months ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar slowed the process for granting new offshore leases, criticizing the previous administration’s “headlong rush.”

But many Santa Barbara County residents have no problem with tapping into undersea resources, contending that evolving technology has minimized the risk of catastrophic spills.

“It’s irresponsible not to develop offshore drilling and production, with a serious eye to making certain it’s safe -- which it can be,” said Joni Gray, a supervisor who represents the Santa Maria and Lompoc areas.

To some, the conflict mirrors a county split between its conservative, agricultural north and its liberal, more affluent south.

“It’s two different worlds,” Gray said. “A lot of people in the north came here because their parents or grandparents worked in the oil industry. That was a good job. If you weren’t fortunate enough to have a master’s or a Ph.D. or a large inheritance, it was a way of working yourself out of the fields or washing dishes.”

Although the supervisors have no direct authority over offshore drilling, they issue permits for critical onshore processing facilities. And even though it’s largely symbolic, their vote today will have an effect outside Santa Barbara.


“It’ll make a big difference,” said Linda Krop, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center. “We might think we’re just one community, but attention to what Santa Barbara does is elevated” because of the 1969 oil spill and the area’s well-known environmental activism.