Nearly 40 years after a disastrous oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., galvanized the nation and gave birth to the modern environmental movement, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is poised to vote today in support of offshore drilling.
Proponents of the measure contend that the United States cannot turn away from a homegrown energy source at a time when the country is dangerously dependent on foreign oil and technology has made offshore drilling safer than ever.
Opponents, however, deride today’s vote to ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to change state policy and “allow expanded oil exploration and extraction in the Santa Barbara County region” as an exercise in polls, politics and posturing.
The vote is largely symbolic; the supervisors have no power to approve new offshore drilling and the governor has come out against it. But it underscores both the issue’s volatility and this coastal county’s changing reality.
With gasoline prices hovering around $4 a gallon and a presidential election in the offing, even U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presumptive Democratic candidate Barack Obama in recent weeks cautiously have embraced the possibility of offshore drilling.
But today’s vote is as much about the tension between inland and the coast as it is about the price of a barrel of crude. Population and political power have been shifting away from the more liberal coast, and the board of supervisors has a conservative, pro-industry majority for the first time in about a decade.
The result: An expected 3-2 vote to support increased oil drilling off the same beaches that were coated in crude and covered with the corpses of birds, seals and dolphins after 3 million gallons of oil leaked from an offshore drilling site in 1969.
Supervisor Brooks Firestone is co-author of the measure to voice support for offshore drilling. But a year ago, he voted with the majority of the board in support of a federal moratorium on such drilling.
Back then, he said Monday in an interview, “We didn’t need the revenues. Property values were such that we were paying our own bills. We didn’t need the jobs. Employment was very sound. The threat to the tourist industry if we were going to have sticky beaches, that would be a disaster.”
He changed his mind, he said, because, “Technology has pre-empted that last argument. We do need the jobs. We do need the money. We do need the oil.”
But Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, said the expected vote does not mark a sea change in the region but rather underscores the county’s long-term schizophrenia.
“The north county has always been pro-oil,” she said. “Santa Barbara city has been anti-oil for 40 years, and it’s still anti-oil.”
Krop noted that 37 oil leases off the county’s coastline granted between 1968 and 1984 have never been developed by oil companies.
The main question raised by opponents, she said, is: “Why should we be opening up brand new areas when there are already leases the oil companies are sitting on?”