FELICITY BARRINGER, The New York Times, August 27, 2008
Santa Barbara County became a symbol of the national environmental movement’s passionate opposition to offshore oil drilling when an oil spill devastated its coastline in 1969. On Tuesday, it became a symbol of the changing national mood as its board of supervisors debated whether to welcome new wells along California’s shores.
The supervisors voted 3 to 2 on Tuesday to end the county’s opposition to offshore drilling, although the vote will have no practical impact on state or federal policies.
But the speed with which opinions have changed in Santa Barbara County as gasoline prices have climbed has been astonishing. The vote there reinforces, at the local level, a shift evident in national polls and in the delicate willingness of Democratic leaders like Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive presidential nominee, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, to open the door to limited coastal drilling.
Three weeks ago, the Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing that 51% of Californians now approve of offshore drilling, a 10-point increase in a single year. “I don’t think any of us expected to see the day when there’d be more than 50% support for oil drilling,” said Mark Baldassare, the institute’s research director.
Despite the liberal, environmentally conscious aura that has surrounded the wealthy coastal communities of Santa Barbara and Montecito, the county as a whole, which also includes the fast-growing, less-wealthy inland communities of Santa Ynez and Santa Maria, has been less easily pigeonholed politically.
“It’s a bipolar situation,” said Antonio Rossman, an environmental lawyer in San Francisco. “You’ve got some of the strongest environmentalists in the country, yet this is where Ronald Reagan had his ranch,” Mr. Rossman said, adding, “The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has always split as close as anyone can on issues of preservation versus development.”
The swing vote on the five-member board, Supervisor Brooks Firestone, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that he was ending his opposition because offshore drilling was no longer a significant threat to the coastal environment.
“I did a lot of research that brought me to realize that 1969 can’t happen again,” Mr. Firestone said. He joined two supervisors who are longtime proponents of drilling in voting in favor of writing a letter asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to rethink his support for the Congressional moratorium on offshore drilling.
Michael Chrisman, California’s secretary for resources, made it clear in a telephone interview that this was not going to happen. Asked about the changes in the national and local moods, Mr. Chrisman said: “It’s obvious what’s going on. The presidential election’s going on.”
He said the issue was driven by the “high price of gasoline and need of country to become more energy independent.”
“It’s a healthy debate,” he added. “But from our perspective, our position hasn’t changed. The governor has been very clear in his opposition to increased drilling off the coast of California.” More than 80 people signed up to speak at the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, and Mr. Firestone said the testimony was often emotional.
“People want wind power, solar power, less dependence on foreign oil,” he said. “Fair enough. We all want that.” But he said he expected economic pressure to find new oil supplies to reach a breaking point eventually and force widespread leasing of tracts off the coast. “Better to do it gradually, safely and intelligently,” he said, “than wait for the inevitable conclusion.”
Tupper Hall, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said in a telephone interview that the debate in Santa Barbara was emblematic of a national mood swing prompted in part by a desire to be less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. “This national — and now local — dialogue that is now taking place we believe is very healthy,” Mr. Hall said. “It is an acknowledgment, I believe, that the public understands that supply really does matter.”
Finding safe and appropriate ways to increase the supply, he added, is “one of the ways to address instability, volatility in the global markets.”
But Warner Chabot, a vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, a national environmental group, said offshore drilling would not decrease oil prices.
“Exposing coastal areas and beaches to oil drills and environmental degradation for a few weeks’ supply isn’t a national energy policy,” Mr. Chabot said.
President Bush put the issue at the center of the national debate in June when he proposed rescinding an executive order against offshore drilling originally imposed by his father. He ended that moratorium in July and called on Congress to lift the ban it has imposed for 27 years.
Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was in Santa Barbara just weeks earlier to outline his energy policy — one that included a new willingness to encourage drilling on the outer continental shelf.