Line in the Sand As the Push for More Oil Intensifies, Will California Be Able to Keep Offshore Drilling at Bay?

Santa Barbara oil spill, © Bob Dunkin,

On January 28, 1969, the world awoke to an environmental nightmare unfolding off the pristine coast of Santa Barbara, California. Union Oil Company (later Unocal) was drilling 3,000 feet below the ocean floor from an offshore platform when underwater pipes ruptured, unleashing 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. Though later dwarfed by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and the Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010, it was the country’s first major offshore oil spill.

The images of oil-soaked birds, dead dolphins and tar-stained beaches left a lasting impression, one that served as a catalyst in the passage of many U.S. environmental laws and the beginning of California’s own progressive environmental movement. Yet, as those images have faded, a renewed call to drill in in the Pacific is beginning to gain ground.

The Original Oil and Gas State

California is undoubtedly one of the greenest states in the nation, with such progressive environmental policies as plastic bag bans, citywide composting initiatives and strict energy-efficiency regulations. But despite its green reputation, the Golden State has an oily past: The world’s first offshore oil wells were drilled off Summerland, California, in the late 1800s, a point of contention for nearby coastal communities.

The Santa Barbara spill created an 800-square-mile slick that marred 35 miles of unspoiled coastline, dealing an economic and environmental blow. “The Santa Barbara oil spill was a wake-up call for Californians that our unspoiled coast and coastal economy could be threatened by industrialization,” says Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The disaster launched the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The government soon passed new federal regulations on offshore oil drilling, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and a congressional ban on new offshore oil leasing followed in 1981, with exceptions in the Gulf of Mexico and parts of Alaska. Congress also created its own moratoria each year by restricting federal funds from being used to support new leasing in areas across the country, including the entire California coast. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush issued an executive order prohibiting further federal leasing of waters more than three miles offshore.

During this time, Americans also saw the passage of powerful environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“After the spill we immediately had the political will and the population turned against oil drilling,” says Gina Goodhill, oceans advocate for Environment California. “From that, we had an awakening all across the country that the way that we were interacting with the environment was not sustainable.”

Having lived through the spill, Californians were particularly affected by the tragedy, especially because they had so much to lose. The state’s billion-dollar coastal tourism and fishing economy meant that far more jobs were dependent on a clean, healthy coast than on the oil industry.

“The California coast is a state of mind in California,” says Notthoff. “People place a very high value on protecting California’s coast, both to provide access for recreation and to protect it in its natural state.”

As a result, Californians raised the bar for environmental regulation across the country. They permanently banned new leasing of state offshore tracts, passed the California Environmental Quality Act and established the California Coastal Commission, whose mission is to protect, conserve, restore and enhance resources of the California coast and ocean. For decades these measures have served as barriers against new offshore oil drilling attempts.

Californians also used the spill as an opportunity to transition from dirty energy sources like oil and gas to clean and renewable energy by implementing progressive energy regulations, such as energy-efficiency standards for appliances and sustainable building codes (see sidebar “California Greenin””).

Drill Seekers

Many of the environmental laws passed in the early “70s still exist today, but oil companies have been working hard in subsequent decades to convince the public and legislators that offshore oil drilling is safe. Their efforts, coupled with skyrocketing gas prices and a cash-strapped economy, led President George W. Bush in 2008 to rescind the executive order that banned new federal leasing. Most worrisome was the Bush administration’s five-year plan for awarding offshore drilling leases, which included opening up 130 million acres off the California coast.

That same year, the congressional moratorium on offshore leasing expired and calls for the country to “drill, baby, drill,” led by 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, meant that offshore drilling in California was once again on the table.

“All of a sudden the political zeitgeist is “drill, baby, drill” and everyone is saying that it’s OK to drill now to solve our energy woes,” says Matt McClain, director of marketing and communications at Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization. “So we’re freaking out now because this is something that, quite frankly, the environmental groups thought we had in the bag.”

California environmentalists already had their hands full defending the 36 undeveloped federal leases off of California, which were sold between 1968 and 1984 before the federal moratorium was passed. And environmentalists were also keeping an eye on state waters. Though those waters were technically off-limits due to the statewide offshore drilling moratorium, that didn’t stop the oil companies from making every attempt to circumvent the ban. One such attempt—known as the Tranquillon Ridge Agreement—would have allowed Texas oil company Plains Exploration & Production to expand its offshore operations off the coast of Santa Barbara in exchange for the company agreeing to eventually shut down all four of its offshore platforms. If passed, it would have been the first approval to drill for oil in state waters since 1969.

In 2010, the clean-energy crowd received more bad news after President Obama announced his plans to open up more than 500,000 square miles of U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas exploration for the first time in more than 20 years. Though Obama kept the waters off the West Coast and in Alaska’s Bristol Bay off-limits, it suggested a new openness to offshore drilling.

Defining the Spill

Just as the prospect of offshore oil rigs being built off the California coast seemed inevitable, on April 20, 2010, an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 men and sent more than 200 million gallons of crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The now infamous BP spill is one of the largest oil spills in history—and the greatest environmental disaster the U.S. has seen.

Initially, the Gulf spill re-energized the anti-drilling movement and led to calls for cleaner and safer energy sources. In late May, President Obama issued a moratorium on new deepwater drilling permits and suspended drilling at 33 exploratory wells, while an independent panel began conducting a six-month study of offshore drilling safety. Obama also used his first Oval Office address to discuss the dangers of offshore drilling and called for a renewable energy future. At the same time, thousands of people gathered at beaches and parks around the world for Hands Across the Sand, a movement to protest the dangers that offshore oil drilling presents to oceans and marine life, fishing industries and coastal economies.

“We were blown away by that response,” says McClain of Surfrider, which helped organize the event. “Everybody’s concerned with what’s happening in the Gulf. That was really the match that came to ignite this whole thing.”

Environmentalists were hopeful that the massive oil spill would bring tough new regulations—including a ban on offshore drilling. That never happened. By July 2010, a federal appeals panel had denied the government’s second attempt to establish a moratorium on offshore drilling. At the same time, legislators desperate to bring in new revenue in a suffering economy began calling for more drilling, not less, in areas like the Pacific coast, which the U.S. Department of the Interior believes could contain some 10 billion barrels of oil.

Not long after the spill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that it would be “irresponsible to halt offshore drilling” and that “[t]he biggest beneficiaries of this proposal to stop drilling would be overseas oil interests, OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] and regimes that don’t like us very much.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry also spoke out against a moratorium, warning against a “knee-jerk” reaction to the oil spill during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “[BP has] historically had a very good safety record from my perspective,” Perry said.

Even some California politicians support drilling. Chuck Devore of Irvine, California, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, has said he wants to expand oil drilling off the California coast because it would mean fewer offshore oil accidents and less money going to terrorists.

“A huge difference [between the Gulf oil spill and the Santa Barbara spill] is at the time of the Santa Barbara spill there was bipartisan support for environmental legislation, both in California and nationally. Now…that support doesn’t exist,” says Janet Bridgers, a filmmaker working on a documentary called Sand, Sun, Oil & Gas, which examines the history of oil and gas in the Santa Barbara channel.

And recent polls suggest that anti-drilling sentiment has softened. An Associated Press poll in May 2010 found that 50% of the public favors increased offshore drilling, while an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll concluded that 60% of them do.And according to a June 2010 Rasmussen Reports telephone survey, 48% of likely voters in California still favor offshore drilling.

Where the debate over offshore drilling will ultimately land remains uncertain. In an op-ed on the Los Angeles Times website, James William Gibson, a professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach, argued that whether or not the current Gulf spill sparks renewed environmental activism will depend on how it is scrutinized. “If its causes are defined narrowly—focusing on the need, say, for a better drill, a better cutoff valve—then the broader movement is unlikely to be spurred to greater action,” Gibson wrote.

Many environmental organizations are trying to define the spill’s causes more broadly and to spur a larger discussion about U.S. dependence on oil. The NRDC is calling for a new drilling moratorium in California as well as a renewed push to defend California’s landmark clean energy legislation, the Global Warming Solutions Act, to help reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels like oil and gas.

Some politicians are listening. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), who led the fight in California to stop new offshore oil drilling as Lieutenant Governor, joined 19 original cosponsors in introducing the West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010, which would permanently ban new offshore oil and natural gas drilling in federal waters near California, Oregon and Washington. And a handful of California beach towns are involved in costly legal battles over drilling.

As long as America is dependent on oil, however, the battle to keep offshore drilling out of California will remain.

“Like [Thomas] Jefferson’s magnificent statement, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance—so is environmental protection,” says Bridgers. “Because if the opposition sees a chink in your armor, they’re going to go for it.”