Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Supes back offshore drilling idea


After eight and a half hours of grappling with the possible benefits of expanded offshore oil drilling, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors yesterday voted to send a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger announcing the county’s willingness to embrace more drilling.
The controversial letter was met with strong opposition from environmental groups, who said the county, widely considered the birthplace of the modern environmental movement, should be focused on ending America’s reliance on fossil fuels, not ensuring their continued dominance.

But the majority of the board, led by Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, belayed its support for the letter on skyrocketing fuel costs and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
Using a doomsday-like argument, Firestone said the county can encourage oil drilling and reap the possible economic benefits now, or wait until the federal government declares an emergency and steal the oil out from under local jurisdictions, a scenario he repeatedly cited.
“For the best interest of Santa Barbara County, we need to proceed slowly and sensitively and according to our own jurisdiction and I think we need to convey that to the governor,” he said.
South County supervisors Salud Carbajal, the board chair, and Janet Wolf voted against sending the letter. The duo vehemently refuted Firestone’s arguments throughout the marathon meeting and said afterward they planned to send their own minority letter to the governor expressing how they feel about expanded oil drilling.
Carbajal called the arguments by Firestone and several oil industry experts who testified in favor of expanded drilling, “hollow.” He said he didn’t hear a single sentence that would cause him to believe drilling in the waters off Santa Barbara County would impact fuel costs or reliance on foreign oil.
“It’s a travesty, really, what we did,” he said. “It’s a Trojan horse to allow the big oil industry to exploit people’s concerns about these huge gas prices we’re experiencing so they can have a crack at more leases.”
Firestone and Fourth District Supervisor Joe Centeno drafted the letter that will be sent to the governor.
In it, the supervisors note the county’s historic stance on limiting offshore oil exploration, but state that “new facts and considerations have caused the County Board of Supervisors to review this policy…”
The letter sites improved technology to methods of extracting offshore oil, the county and state budget deficits, unemployment and a possible future crisis as motives for its support of offshore drilling.
David Hackett, president of Stillwater Associates, an energy consulting company, told the board that if the county and state were to allow further offshore drilling, it would have an impact on the price of gas in this country.
However, Carbajal cited a report by the U.S. Department of Energy that states that any new offshore oil drilling would not have a significant impact on the supply or price of gasoline until 2030, a statistic that seemed to be corroborated by county staff, who said it could take decades for a new project to be approved.
A representative from the mineral management service of the federal Department of Interior told the board about technological advances that have been implemented in offshore drilling since 1969, when 80,000 barrels of oil spewed into the Santa Barbara Channel from a Union Oil Co.-owned platform.
The representative said technology has improved immensely and pointed out that nearly every environmental law on the books, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were all passed in the wake of the spill. As a result of vigorous inspections, the representative said spills are now few and far between.
Since the 1969 spill, the representative said 900 barrels of oil has spilled in the Santa Barbara Channel, with the largest single spill totaling 150 barrels.
But when pressed by Carbajal, the representative said 85 to 90 percent of spills are traced to human error, a fact the supervisor said can’t easily be remedied by improved technology.
One topic that received extensive discussion at the meeting was a recent study conducted by UC Santa Barbara professor of marine geophysics Bruce P. Luyendyk. The study focuses on the naturally occurring oil seeps near Coal Oil Point.
Luyendyk’s study concludes that over the past two decades, the oil seeps, which burp oil and gas into the sea and air, have decreased around Platform Holly, which is located just offshore from the university and near Coal Oil Point.
This conclusion is cited in the board’s letter to the governor and says, “Studies have been conducted on the offshore natural seeps that conclude that oil extraction actually mitigates the natural seepage.”
The results of the study have also been used by a group called SOS, or Stop Oil Seeps, which has expressed its support for further drilling.
However, Luyendyk said yesterday during public comment that the UCSB study was only a “hypothesis,” and looked at a one particular seepage around one oil platform, which shouldn’t be used as a measuring stick for the entire offshore drilling industry.
After being read the paragraph in the letter that addresses his study, Luyendyk said he felt it a “gross generalization” of the study’s results.
Firestone said Luyendyk’s testimony doesn’t take away from the language the professor used in the study, which he said clearly seems to indicate there was a decrease in the seepage as a result of drilling.
The letter also cites the economic boost the county and state could realize if they embraced additional offshore drilling.
According to a board agenda letter prepared for yesterday’s meeting, the county currently receives annual royalties of $5.5 million from both onshore and offshore oil operations. While there is no statistic cited in the report about how much could possibly enter county coffers if additional offshore drilling was allowed, it does say three projects currently in the planning phase, one of which is the proposed Tranquillon Ridge project, could net $22.1 million in revenue over the next 14 years.
Linda Kropp, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center, which was formed in response to the 1969 oil spill, said the amount of money the county gets from oil is a sliver compared to tourism, and industry that would suffer greatly in the event of a spill. She said tourism accounts for 57 percent of the state’s coastal economy, while oil claims less than 5 percent.
Kropp also questioned why it is so important to grant oil company’s new offshore leases when they already control 68 million acres of offshore land that they have so far refused to drill on.
Kropp, and several others from the organization Get Oil Out, which was also formed in response to the 1969 spill, wondered why there is no mention in the letter about global warming and the negative impacts future oil development will have on the environment.
While opponents of expanded drilling were not in short supply at the meeting, neither were proponents, many of whom said the need to stop relying on foreign oil is paramount. And if the county can benefit economically along the way, that’s even better, many said.
Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, praised the letter and said finding alternative means of energy and power will take just as long as drilling. And the latter, he said, is proven.
“The bottom line is they’re talking out both sides of their mouth,” Caldwell said of environmentalists who oppose drilling. “What you have here today is practical and it works.”
Many opponents of expanded offshore drilling said attempting to solve the current energy crisis with more oil would only exacerbate the looming issue of climate change and in the end, further America’s “addiction” to oil.
John Abraham Powell, president of Get Oil Out, said the country needs to treat its addition to oil just as a drug addicted person ideally treats their addition: to stop using it.
Instead, Powell said the county’s response to the addiction is “to go out and get more junk and make sure they stay addicted as long as they want. This is exactly what the county is asking the state to do in this letter today - enable our addiction,” he said.
Firestone responded by saying the county gives out clean needles to drug-addicted people to ensure they’re using drugs safely and cleanly, which is one of the myriad reasons he believes its better to produce oil in California, where environmental restrictions are more stringent than in other oil-producing countries.
Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray pledged her support for the letter, saying she would do so in order to benefit the “poorest and most vulnerable” in the county, who she said are suffering the most from more expensive oil.
“Oil doesn’t frighten me,” she said. “Oil doesn’t scare me and I don’t see oil as a bad thing.
“Unless you arrived here on a horse or you walked or rode a bicycle you are part of the oil industry. We are all part of it. That means we all have to work to balance it.”

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