Budget deal’s oil-drilling component draws mixed reviews

A rig near Santa Barbara. The notion of renewed drilling off the coast has drawn mixed reaction.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

It would be hard to find a lovelier spot to draw lines in the sand than East Beach on the day after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the door to new offshore oil drilling for the first time in 40 years.

Sunshine glinted off bright blue water. Beach volleyball players, tan and sand-covered, leapt and charged. Boats bobbed. On the distant horizon, oil platforms carved soft silhouettes.

“Why take a chance” on new drilling along the picturesque coastline, Brett Ettinger, a 50-year-old architect, asked as he squished his toes in the warm sand Tuesday afternoon and watched his daughter compete in the California Beach Volleyball Assn. tournament.

Allowing a Texas oil company to sink new wells off the Santa Barbara County coast in exchange for oil revenues to balance the budget “seems like it’s a Band-Aid approach, rather than a durable solution,” he said.

Coach Mike Maas, 57, couldn’t disagree more about the so-called Tranquillon Ridge proposal. The people who complain about drilling off of Santa Barbara “are the same ones driving around in their big Escalades,” he said as his team cavorted. “The economy sucks. If that is a way to get some money, why not?”

After months of partisan bickering, the governor and legislative leaders hammered out a budget deal Monday night that would revive an offshore drilling plan with a long and tangled history. New oil extraction ventures would be allowed in state waters for the first time since a disastrous spill here in 1969 gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Fifteen months ago, Plains Exploration & Production Co. reached a deal with local officials and environmentalists to stop offshore oil production off Santa Barbara County decades early in exchange for the right to drill into untapped undersea reserves from an existing platform.

It also promised to donate 200 acres of ocean-view property along the Gaviota coast and 3,700 acres in the region’s wine country for public parkland. The state would rake in $100 million in oil revenues this fiscal year and an estimated $1.8 billion over the life of the project.

But earlier this year, the State Lands Commission killed the deal.

The Environmental Defense Center backed the plan last year. While its members still support the plan’s details, they expressed concern Tuesday that Schwarzenegger had upended a bureaucratic process that has protected the environment in the past.

“We are concerned about the precedent it sets,” said Linda Krop, the center’s chief counsel.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), Lt. Gov. John Garamendi and a coalition of officials and environmentalists were more vociferous.

“The governor just put California’s coastline up for sale when he had other options that don’t put our natural resources at risk,” Garamendi said in the group’s written statement.

But along Santa Barbara’s lower State Street, where the town’s main drag abuts the ocean, opinion was mixed.

At Santa Barbara Trolley Tours, driver Craig Boslaugh, 60, worried that another spill like 1969 “would affect tourism, so it would definitely affect our business.”

But Reynolds Yater, who was dropping off one of his eponymous surfboards at The Beach House nearby, said Americans can’t complain about oil drilling and then buy surfboards and wetsuits.

Waving his arm at the store’s wares, Yater pointed out that “all of this stuff is made out of oil, so it’s very hypocritical to be making this stuff and then not want it drilled on our beaches.”