California environmentalists’ surprising solution: Drill, baby, drill!

On April 20, when an explosion hit the Deepwater Horizon oil rig just off the Louisiana coast, the repercussions might have crashed like a tidal wave on the far off shores of Santa Barbara – home of one of the worst oil rig disasters ever, back in 1969. 

But there was little or no outcry among the coastal city’s eco-activists such as the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and Get Oil Out! (GOO) – two prime movers in cleaning up the beaches and fending off further drilling in the area.

In fact, the Santa Barbara environmental community had just resuscitated an agreement to permit drilling on Tranquillon Ridge, just 5 miles off the coast of Northern Santa Barbara County.  The agreement allows PXP – a major oil exploration company – to snake a drill from its platform in federal waters onto the rich Tranquillon Ridge oil reserves and suck out all the oil they can for the next nine years.

You’d think the big explosion and resultant oil spill in the Gulf Coast would have shaken this agreement to its foundations.  Not so, according to Linda Krop, chief counsel for the EDC.  “The gulf accident is a tragedy, but it confirmed the value of our agreement,” she told me by phone.

That’s because the new agreement with PXP is, in Krop’s words, “a shut-down plan” that will result in cessation of activities by three of the company’s oil rigs off the Santa Barbara coast in nine years, and a fourth in 14 years.   This will be the first time that any off-shore oil drilling company in California has agreed to halt ongoing operations.

The agreement also calls for PXP to abandon its on-shore processing facilities in the same time-frame, turn all of its holdings into public property for use by the local communities, and eliminate the majority of its hydrocarbon emissions from continuing operations. 

This is EDC’s second try at gaining approval for the agreement from the State Lands Commission, which voted two-to-one against essentially the same plan back in 2008.  The difference in the new version is stronger enforcement provisions that empower the state to punish PXP if it fails to meet its commitments.   In addition, PXP has agreed to relinquish any revenue from drilling that occurs after the specified end dates for the four rigs.

“It’s 40 years after the Santa Barbara spill, and accidents continue to happen,” Krop said.  “We knew that industry would continue to seek ways to drill without a definitive and enforceable agreement such as this one.”

The EDC, GOO, and supporters that include the area’s political representatives as well as the local community have generally fallen in behind this plan.  However, a few voices of protest have made their feelings known.

Santa Barbara Independent columnist Nick Welsh reviewed some of those concerns in an April 8 column, noting:

     Some environmentalists, however, charge that the deal is too good to be true. Susan Jordan (now running for State Assembly), her husband Pedro Nava (now occupying the Assembly seat she’s hoping to occupy), and coastal commissioner Sara Wan, among others, have gone on the warpath, charging that the deal is legally unenforceable. The federal government, they claimed, would never tolerate any arrangement that impinged on its ability to continue collecting oil revenues, and that’s exactly what the drop-dead date would do. Worse yet, they said, it sends a dangerously mixed message about oil drilling off the coast.

Krop views most of these dissents as old hat, and urges people to “read the agreement to get the facts.”  There is, she says, “overwhelming support within the community” for this groundbreaking deal, and points to the leaders who stood shoulder to shoulder with EDC for the public announcement of the deal.

They included Congresswoman Lois Capps, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, activists Selma Rubin and Bob Sollen, and representatives of the Trust for Public Land.

Hurdles remain before this agreement can go forward.  A reversal by the State Lands Commission is hardly a sure bet. 

But the possibility of real progress seems to be stronger than ever.