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.