Proposed Oil Drilling May Actually Be a Winner 

There's a good reason why several dozen environmental groups support one narrow exemption to California's offshore oil-drilling ban.

It's not clear whether Santa Barbara actually is "the birthplace of the environmental movement," but by now it surely must be, given how many times it has been said. This assertion rests on the long infamous oil blowout of 1969 — whose 40th birthday we just celebrated — where three million gallons of crude bubbled up from beneath Union Oil's Platform A, located six miles off the coast of Carpinteria. In the process, miles of South Coast beaches were tarred by silent, oil-soaked waves, and thousands of marine birds died. Ultimately, Union Oil was found at fault, many lawsuits were filed, and many more laws were passed. Both Congress and the president enacted moratoriums on any new oil development off our coast, though both were lifted late last year. Since then, Santa Barbara has become known across the globe as the iconic victim of Big Oil. The region's reputation as a vestal virgin forever saying no to the blandishments of the oil industry lies at the heart of an epic rift with ramifications for the future of offshore oil development in California.

At issue is a historic accord that two environmental groups reached this past April with the oil company Plains Exploration & Production. PXP owns Platform Irene, located in federal waters a little more than three miles off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara. PXP wants to dip its straw off Irene and into adjoining state waters — the state controls everything from the shore to the three-mile limit — and suck down the rich oil reserves located in an underwater locale known as Tranquillon Ridge. This is a very big deal. No new oil permits have been issued in California waters during the last forty years. Environmental Defense Center attorney Linda Krop, along with the group Get Oil Out! and the Citizens Planning Association, has been chasing away oil companies from Tranquillon Ridge since 1999. When PXP approached John Garamendi, head of the State Lands Commission — which has the first and last word on oil development in state waters — he told them to go make Krop happy. So that's what they did.

Toward that end, PXP agreed to stop drilling at Platform Irene by 2022. Up to now, no oil company had ever agreed to any end date of any kind. So that was huge. In addition, PXP agreed to remove three other oil platforms located in federal waters in 2017, as well as two onshore oil processing plants. Without this infrastructure in place, Krop argued that other oil companies will be less interested should the feds — always hungry for oil revenues — promote further oil development in our federal waters.

Beyond that, PXP agreed to offset all its greenhouse gas emissions, give Santa Barbara County $1.5 million to buy a new fleet of clean-air buses, and donate 3,900 acres of land to the Trust for Public Land. That doesn't count the $2 billion-$5 billion in royalties the state stands to collect, or the $100 million PXP would pay the state up front.

Initially, the only grousing came from two oil companies that had competing plans for the same oil fields. But in late January, Krop found herself caught completely flat-footed by Assemblyman Pedro Nava — now running to succeed Jerry Brown as California's attorney general — who got the eleven members of the Coastal Caucus to sign a letter expressing grave concerns that the PXP project set a dangerous precedent and was legally unenforceable. Eight members of a parallel Senate committee submitted a letter of identical concerns. Nava's wife, Susan Jordan — a formidable eco-warrior in her own right who is running to fill the Assembly vacancy being created by her husband — also weighed in with concerns about the deal, as did California Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan, an ocean defender proud to be despised by every developer in the state. Adding to Krop's vexation, the State Lands Commission staff has recommended denial of the PXP proposal on many of the same grounds. Garamendi — who midwifed the deal by telling PXP to make Krop happy — is also opposed.

Their underlying concern is that if the "birthplace of the environmental movement" says yes to any oil development, it risks opening the flood gates. Nava said that Sacramento Republicans are saying that if oil development is okay in Santa Barbara, it's okay anywhere off the coast. When the deal was first announced, Nava noted that The Wall Street Journal used the occasion to proclaim that even Santa Barbara environmentalists now agree that oil drilling is safe. Given Santa Barbara's unique history, it has become the line in the sand that no one can cross. Not even itself.

Krop has battled the oil industry for decades. So when she says the deal sets no precedent — because PXP is the only operator in all of California to qualify for one of two exceedingly narrow exemptions allowed to the state ban on new offshore oil development — I tend to believe her. When attorneys for the State Lands Commission question whether the contract is enforceable, that gives me pause. But I'd still put my money behind Krop. So, it seems, have Congresswoman Lois Capps, the Sierra Club, GOO, CPA, and an alphabet-soup of 25 other environmental groups that back the deal. I'm not saying Nava and Jordan haven't raised significant questions. But if the deal dies, we know for certain that the four platforms will stay put indefinitely, the two processing plants will never go away, and the 3,900 acres won't get donated. For me, it's a calculated gamble. If the deal is approved, and Nava and Jordan are proven correct, the worst case is that we're right where we started. But if they're wrong and the deal dies, then we lose a historic opportunity. Obviously, there are no guarantees when playing craps or negotiating with oil companies. But sometimes you just have to roll the dice. Oh, and by the way, happy 40th anniversary.

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