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Oil drilling backed – Santa Barbara Co. letter is symbolic reversal

By   /   Friday, August 29th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Oil drilling backed – Santa Barbara Co. letter is symbolic reversal

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Business officials expressed support for a symbolic gesture calling on Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger to lift a decades-old moratorium on trying to get more fuel from he Santa Barbara Channel.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted Aug. 26 in favor of sending a letter to the governor requesting him to support President Bush’s call to lift the nation’s ban on offshore oil drilling and to expand exploration, though the 3-2 vote reflected conflicting environmental concerns and economic interests.

Board Chairman Salud Carbajal and Supervisor Janet Wolf cast votes against the letter. “Sending the letter flies in the face of reason,” Wolf said just before vote, which was decided by outgoing Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who switched his position since last year on the fiery issue.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill – caused by the drilling platforms off its coast – blackened the area’s once pristine beaches and killed many birds and sea creatures. It was one of the key reasons the offshore drilling ban was approved.

But Firestone said the prospect of $5 per gallon gasoline and other soaring fuel costs contributed to his decision in favor of offshore oil drilling. Supervisors Joni Gray and Joe Centeno also voted for the letter, a decision Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Kristen Amyx supported.

“The county’s decision accurately reflects our community’s willingness to confront issues about energy by keeping all good options on the table,” Amyx said. “Our business community wants a reliable, sound, sustainable energy policy from our local government up to the federal level – and they want to be a part of the alternative energy revolution. Expanded oil exploration has to be part of that conversation, so this is a positive step.”

Carpinteria-based oil company Venoco, which has oil platforms off the Central Coast, has been in discussions with the county of Santa Barbara and the city of Goleta to expand the scope of its drilling and implement regional facility changes that may reduce environmental risks.

“We thought the hearing was a thorough vetting of the offshore industry’s safety and environmental record over the last four decades,” said Steve Greig, government relations and regulatory manager of Venoco.

Greig said Venoco’s South Ellwood project is unique in that it will use an existing platform and extended reach drilling technology to develop the field it is currently producing and reduce coastal infrastructure by replacing the marine terminal and barging operation with an onshore pipeline.

“Unlike some of the theoretical projects, the South Ellwood Full Field project can start producing new barrels in a very short time-frame – within about 12 to 18 months,” Greig said.

Firestone, a former Republican state assemblyman, insisted drilling would help ease the fuel crisis while healing the county’s strained budget by providing more tax revenue. “We might be able to solve our deficit problem with the reserves out there,” he said during an all-day board meeting in Santa Maria.

Regional economist Mark Schniepp said the area would not see significant direct economic stimulus or increased jobs from more oil exploration, but revenues that flow to the public agencies could be “quite significant.”
“If there’s more of a sympathetic ear towards oil expansion then it could help out the economy significantly but, more so, with respect to the revenue generation, particularly for schools through property taxes and for the county if royalty sharing split to the county does get approved,”

Schniepp said, referring to recent legislation proposing that the county get 20 percent of the royalties from regional oil drilling that currently goes to the state.

But the two dissenting supervisors and environmental lawyer Linda Krop tried to dissuade the pro-drilling supervisors by saying the oil from the Santa Barbara Channel would not be available for use as fuel for decades.

“It’s a Trojan horse prompted by the oil companies,” Carbajal said in an interview with the Business Times. He and Wolf sent their own letter to the governor calling for him to maintain the drilling ban.

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento, agreed. “The governor wants to focus on low-carbon emission fuels because that’s the only way to bring down fuel costs,” Page said. “Offshore drilling is not the answer.” Page said both presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., support a carbon emissions credit program, which the Republican governor called for in signing AB32 into law this year.

Bob Poole, senior coordinator for coastal issues of the Western States Petroleum Association, said the country’s energy needs must be met by a combination of conservation, improved operating efficiencies, alternative and renewable energies, and development of domestic energy sources including petroleum.

“There are an estimated 10 million barrels of oil offshore California and we need to make full use of our natural resources,” Poole said. “We are very encouraged by this issue being discussed in Santa Barbara County and discussion such as the one that took place yesterday in a public forum can only be constructive.”

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said the city has an ordinance that prohibits oil drilling on its land. “It would take a lot of years for some new exploration [in the channel] and I just don’t think it’s going to make a difference in the price of our gas,” the mayor said. “The governor has been very strongly against offshore oil drilling. I think the vote on the supervisors went along party lines, but he’s been very vocally against it so I would like to give him some credit and help him out.”

• Staff writers Emily Rancer and Ray Estrada contributed.

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