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Unstoppable Oil: Gulf Catastrophe Has Political Fallout in California

3 years ago
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Californians have poor public transportation, pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation, and are so dependent on their automobiles that the prospect of an energy shortage is frightening. The thirst for oil here is so considerable that in recent years it has caused Californians to rethink their traditional opposition to offshore oil drilling.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a green advocate in other respects, backed a plan for drilling off the state's scenic Santa Barbara coastline. The plan was the brainchild of environmentalists who since the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 have considered oil rigs the work of the devil.

But all previous bets are off in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. This faraway BP disaster prompted Schwarzenegger to scuttle the deal negotiated by environmentalists with the oil company PXP. Another oil drilling project in the sleepy coastal town of Carpenteria, a few miles south of Santa Barbara, is on the June 8 ballot and in jeopardy.

This proposal, known as Measure J, would allow the oil company Venoco to build a 17-story on-shore drilling rig that would extend pipes deep into the ocean floor. Although there have been no published opinion polls, supporters have acknowledged that the prospects of Measure J have been damaged by the BP gulf spill. A recent Los Angeles Times-USC survey found that half of California's voters oppose new oil drilling off the state's coast; in 2008 and 2009 this survey found a majority of public support for such drilling.

The plan that Schwarzenegger jettisoned last month in the wake of the BP spill was known as the Tranquillon Ridge Project or T-Ridge. Under the terms of an elaborate agreement negotiated by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and PXP, the oil company would have given up long-term rights to drill in nearby federal waters in return for a short-term lease to drill in state waters from an existing oil platform.

The agreement divided local environmentalists, but on balance it seemed a win-win for everyone. The disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill that began on Jan. 28, 1969, and spread over 800 square miles was the result of a blowout on Platform A in federal waters; it was later determined that California regulations for state-owned platforms were stricter than the federal ones.

The T-Ridge agreement would have eliminated drilling in federal waters, which are deeper and therefore more risky. It would also have been a good deal for the oil company, which would have avoided the considerable expense of constructing additional platforms and would have allowed access to a proven and easily reached oil reservoir.

But in the aftermath of the BP spill, Schwarzenegger, an actor who appreciates the power of visuals, was having none of it. A few days after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the governor said at a Sacramento press conference, "You turn on the television and see this enormous disaster; you say to yourself, 'Why would we want to take on that kind of risk'?"

He did not mention -- nor was he asked -- about what the EDC sees as the greater risk of drilling in deeper federal waters, as PXP is now free to do. Typically, as a governor who acts on impulse without informing his allies, Schwarzenegger did not give the EDC or the oil company advance warning of what he was going to say.

The wisdom of the T-Ridge project is being retrospectively debated in a Democratic primary for State Assembly between a candidate who strongly favored the project and another who opposed it. There are too many other issues in the race to make the outcome a pure referendum on T-Ridge. Measure J, on the other hand, will be decided by the voters, and the outcome is being closely watched by conservationist and business groups alike as a sign of what might be possible in the way of future coastline oil development.

If Measure J passes, it could set a precedent in which oil companies tried to evade drilling-skeptical local governments by taking their case directly to the people. Carpenteria, which claims to have the "world's safest beach," is at once conservative and conservationist: citizens raised money to purchase the Carpenteria Bluffs, a favorite walking area that has at its base a harbor seal rookery that is one of few on the West Coast open to public viewing. (I live a few miles away and have seen newly born seals at the rookery. During mating season volunteers keep people and dogs away from the beach and rope off an area where visitors can watch the seals through binoculars.)

In 2005, Venoco filed an application with the city to develop what is called the Paredon Project, named after the oil field it seeks to tap. It had high hopes that its project would sail through the planning commission and be quickly approved by the city council. But the city's environmental report found "significant and unavoidable impacts," including noise and vibrations in the seal rookery plus a chance of an oil spill that it acknowledged was remote but seems less so after the Deepwater Horizon fiasco.

When it became clear to oil company executives that the city council would not approve the project, they turned to the initiative process, so far spending about $400,000 (or $60 per resident) on mailers and other advertising urging a "yes" vote on Measure J. The opponents, with little money, have been creative. They organized a "paddle-out" in which hundreds of surfers and kayakers massed in the waters to denounce Measure J. Throughout Carpenteria, a working-class and tourist town with a high percentage of Latinos, there are signs on lawns and buildings opposing Measure J that proclaim: "Save Our Town."

But the opponents cannot be sure, even after the BP spill, that they have the upper hand. The selling point for Measure J is that it would provide up to $200 million for schools in Carpenteria and Santa Barbara County, no small thing in a state where a series of budget shortfalls have caused severe cutbacks. Carpenteria has been so hard hit that it has canceled summer classes.

The competing verities of education and environment have stirred scores of passionate letters on both sides to the local newspaper, the Coastal View News. Opponents of the measure have raised the specter of the 1969 spill in which beaches and birds were coated with oil. Proponents have said that the Paredon project is in the national interest because it would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. One overwrought correspondent went so far as to claim that a vote against Measure J was a vote "for war in the Middle East."

More than three decades ago the Santa Barbara oil spill transformed politics in California. It gave impetus to a nascent environmental movement that crested in 1970 with the creation of Earth Day. Santa Barbarans fought hard in the wake of the disaster to win a permanent ban on drilling off the central California coast. They failed to obtain the law they wanted, but oil drilling became so toxic that it was opposed by a generation of California politicians, liberal and conservative alike.

Now, after Deepwater Horizon, drilling in the ocean, even from an onshore platform, is once again a toxic issue. What happened in the Gulf of Mexico may determine the outcome of Measure J in Carpenteria and with it the fate of oil drilling along California's coast.

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65 Comments

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knute9

Do you like the "Drill, Baby, Drill", with more deregulation and less government platform?

June 06 2010 at 2:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill

Sooooo. Why is a foreign company BP (British Petroleum)drilling 3 miles off of our shore line?

June 05 2010 at 9:27 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bill

Should have drilled in Alaska. Could have contained the spill better, recaptuered the fuel, and fixed the leak.
I wonder how many desert animals die every day in the M.E.

June 05 2010 at 9:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mikbey

they are going to use the spill to justify the cap and trade and they want use to finance their prodjects through taxes so we will not have a say in which will take the place of oil coal and gass i think we should not get rid of oil just yet

June 04 2010 at 11:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Monte

I urge everyone to think more about the distinction between "foregin oil" and "US oil." I suggest its illusory. Go slog through the online annual reports of all the big oil companies who drill off our shores or hold the lease rights, and read the annual reports of their hardware suppliers (oil well drilling and servicing companies, and tanker lines). They are ALL GLOBAL. Even oil drilled locally is moved around the globe. The idea we can provide our own "domestic" oil from US off shore leases is not supported by facts from the companies who actually drill, obtain, refine, and distribute oil. Fear of "foregin oil dependence" is really a fear of "oil dependence." So if you are afraid of being subject to "foreign oil" your best choice is to go green - solar, wind, algae, what ever.

June 04 2010 at 7:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
wscotten

Yes the future has been here and we still made Hummers and other monsters that got less than 10 mpg. Everytime you see a vehecle like that it means we have to go deeper to get the oil for it. B.S. WE COULD BE USING HALF OF THE OIL WE USE NOW IF WE STATED 30 YEARS AGO. We should have listen to jimmy carter 30 years ago and started a conservation alternative way of reducing our use of oil. Now we are two wars and an environmental disaster away from that goal.

June 03 2010 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bobbsafe

I have no idea why modern day Americans - need to blast down the freeway in V8 giant trucks and lumox gas pig SUV's. Vain wasting of oil should be illegal whether you can afford it or not. The environment cannot afford it.

To me it is not a matter of if, but when the last clean coastline of California will be ruined by the unsatisfied addiction to "more oil", faster, bigger. If the Gulf catastrophe does not teach us it's time to de tune and slow down - we are doomed to repeat.

June 03 2010 at 1:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pete

What seems like a reasonable precaution to stop drilling in shallow water to protect the environment will likely, as it has in the Gulf, lead to the greater possibility of another disasterous spill.

No one wants to see a 17 story drilling rig on the horizon so environmentalists push drilling further and further offshore............ out of sight out of mind.

The facts are we could have stopped this leak ALONG TIME AGO if it were in shallow water. Only a few countries in the world have submarines capable of taking a people down over a mile.......the US is NO LONGER one of those countries.

Arnold's pandering for public support in the wake on the Gulf disaster will result in pushing oil exploration further off shore..... out of sight out of mind...... making the problem WORSE!!!!!
Moving oil drilling closer to shore would be the prudent thing to do until we have the technology to QUICKLY repair problems one mile down. That policy would protect the environment but cost politicians political support from environmentalists...................soooooo, as usual, politicians take the EASY WAY OUT!!!!!

June 03 2010 at 12:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
oddeith

From what I understand the people in Kuwait have a process for cleaning up oil spills. We are not useing it for the reason of not thinking of it first.

June 03 2010 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Barry

The Gulf Catastrophe could have been avoided if the US were growing algae. Algae is renewable, does not affect the food channel and consumes CO2. No explosions, no fires, no deaths and no environmental problems. What's wrong with that???

Algae has been researched in US universities for over 35 years. It's time to move it out of the lab and go into commercial-scale production. Algaepreneurs are starting to build commercial-scale plants throughout the US using all off-the-shelf existing technologies. More algae production plants are coming online. Algae is one solution to get the US off of foreign oil and create new jobs right here in the US. The algae industry is being built today by Americans who all want to get off foreign oil.

June 03 2010 at 11:12 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Barry's comment
davidrdogbow

When it becomes economically feasible and efficient to do so, I'm sure it will.

UNTIL that point, you cannot simply stop doing what is CURRENTLY economically feasible and efficient.

The logic is missed by this administration and its supporters that you can't force the future before the future is the future.

In other words, subsidizing renewables in order to make them economic (because without subsidies they are not), is nothing but wasting money(because in reality the subsidy should go to the overall cost to the taxpayer, and does) on something that isn't ready for COMMERCIAL (aka economically sound and efficeint) use yet.

Awesome that we are looking at renewables. But until they are an economically sound option and a feasible option operationally and logistically, you can't just FORCE! the future by harming that that is already efficient to magically make the inefficient "efficient".

June 03 2010 at 11:44 AM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
glers

I don't think algae production could of avoided the catastrophe at this time but algae is a great source for bio fuels production and will be a good investment in the near future

June 03 2010 at 12:40 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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