John Abraham Powell, president of the nonprofit environmental organization Get Oil Out (GOO), is a third-generation Santa Barbaran who believes that new oil and gas drilling will always be an issue as long as Americans remain addicted to oil.
E Magazine: How did you get involved with GOO?
John Abraham Powell: Members of GOO [in 1998] knew that I was an environmentalist, so they asked me to serve on the board and be the president. At that point I had no experience at all with running a nonprofit, but nobody else wanted to do it.
E: GOO formed after the Santa Barbara spill in 1969. What has the organization been doing since?
J.A.P.: We’ve been very successful at keeping the pressure on [preventing new petroleum development] to make sure that new oil and gas wells don’t get permitted. We’ve also been trying to get the existing oil drilling platforms decommissioned, but once the platform is in place it’s very difficult to get it removed. We also successfully argued a lawsuit that forced the federal government to acknowledge that federal oil processing that’s done offshore and brought into state land-based processing facilities falls under the California Environmental Quality Act and therefore can be regulated by the state. That was a big one.
To be honest, though, we thought that we’d be done fighting over this stuff by now. Platform A, the one that blew up in Santa Barbara, is still there processing oil, 40 years later. I look at it every day.
E: What about the Tranquillon Ridge Agreement [a plan abandoned since the Gulf oil spill], which would have allowed new drilling in California? Wasn’t GOO in favor of that agreement?
J.A.P.: Plains Exploration & Production Company (PXP) was trying to drill directly from state waters. So they asked environmentalists what they would want in exchange. We came up with this incredible list of concessions, which included PXP shutting down all of its existing oil and gas operations, as well as shutting down three platforms, offsetting all of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions and conveying thousands of acres of land for the public’s benefit.
We never thought they’d agree to all these things, but they said OK. We had people crying on our board and have gotten hateful phone calls about this deal. But there was no other way under the law to shut down the existing oil platforms off of the California Coast. It has been 41 years since Platform A spilled three million gallons of oil into the ocean and onto our beaches, and yet that platform is still operating today. And as long as those platforms exist, every day that passes is another opportunity for a spill like the one in the Gulf.