May 28, 2023
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Future tourism, political fortunes at stake over response to oil spill


Just six months ago, Santa Barbara County’s oil and gas industry was sailing on smooth waters.

In the November election, broad business support and a flood of outside money helped defeat Measure P, an effort to ban fracking and a wide range of drilling activities countywide.

Two companies, Aera Energy and Venoco, were in the very early stages of seeking state approval for their respective onshore and offshore drilling projects. In early May, it appeared the California State Lands Commission might eventually green light the Veneco project, albeit after meeting environmental restrictions.

A new modus vivendi had been struck — so long as tax revenue rolled in, oil and gas extractors would be tolerated and Santa Barbara County would continue to promote its progress in meeting tough targets for greenhouse gas curbs.

That consensus was shattered by the May 19 pipeline leak and oil spill off the Gaviota Coast. Media coverage cast a pall over the Memorial Day kickoff to the summer tourist season. Fallout continued as the cleanup dragged on. Pipeline operator Plains All American was shown to be a company where leaks were apparently tolerated as business as usual — at least to the tune of its $75 million in reserves.

Accustomed to a culture of business being conducted with extreme sensitivity to environmental issues, many stakeholders found it unacceptable for the Central Coast to be treated like any fracking town in Middle America.

Yardi Systems, the largest privately-owned software company in the region, took the unusual step of offering $25,000 in support to the Environmental Defense Center’s monitoring of the spill effects. Citing the state’s declaration of emergency, the Lands Commission canceled a May 27 scoping meeting for the Venoco project and moved the agenda item to a June program in Sacramento.

While Plains All American belatedly has thrown more people and more energy at the cleanup, there’s a lot more at stake than its Houston-based brass may realize.

• Tourism related businesses and tech companies concerned about their green bona fides are beginning to align more closely with the environmental movement.  Tourism and tech are industries of the future. If they combine with green companies like Patagonia and marshal their forces for a full-blown war on extractives, they can slow or derail new projects.

• Political fortunes will rise or fall based on what happens. California Attorney General Kamela Harris is running to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate and her investigation into the Refugio disaster could boost her cred with green voters. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a most ambitious politician, casts one of the three votes on the state lands commission. In the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, a Santa Barbara Democrat and staunch environmentalist, the impact of the Refugio spill will loom very large.

• San Luis Obispo County may be the unintended beneficiary. With media focused on the oil spill and anecdotal evidence that at least a few people shunned Santa Barbara over the weekend, the Five Cities, Pismo Beach and Morro Bay are poised to benefit in the short term.

• Finally, a renewed effort to put an anti-fracking measure on the 2016 ballot is one likely outcome. Meanwhile, taxes paid by Santa Barbara county hotels and travel businesses are growing, adding extra political clout.

The tourist impact is likely to be temporary, but politics of oil and gas have been more than slightly impacted by the Refugio spill. Absent extraordinary efforts, the industry will face real headwinds if it wants to regain the trust of the public, elected officials and the business community.

Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at