The notion of new offshore drilling isn't going down well in Santa Barbara, Calif., the idyllic seaside community 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles that has often been called the birthplace of the modern environmental movement. Longtime residents still talk about the oil rig spill in January 1969 that left 35 miles of coastline covered with black goo and caused severe environmental damage. The disastrous spill, which gained worldwide attention, spurred the creation less than a year later of the Environmental Protection Agency by the Nixon administration and passage of the Clean Air Act.
Four decades later, with gas prices continuing to rise, President Bush announced this week that he was lifting the executive ban on the construction of new offshore drilling platforms that was initiated by his father in 1990 and urged Congress to lift its own ban. Sen. John McCain, who in the past supported the ban, now supports more drilling. Sen. Barack Obama still opposes it, as does California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a McCain supporter, who said in a statement, "California's coastline is an international treasure. I do not support lifting this moratorium on new oil drilling off our coast."
In Santa Barbara, opposition to oil drilling runs deep—even among the pro-business crowd. Don Sipple, a veteran Republican campaigner who lives in the area, recently told the Los Angeles Times that opposition to drilling is "not an issue in Santa Barbara, it's a deeply held value." One McCain supporter, Dr. Dan Secord, reportedly told McCain at a private Santa Barbara fund-raiser a few weeks ago that Santa Barbarans are "kind of goosey about oil spills." McCain jokingly responded: "This gathering is adjourned," which got a laugh.
Marty Blum, Santa Barbara's Democratic second-term mayor, moved to this high-rent enclave as a young married mother just three months before the 1969 spill, which left an indelible impression on her family. NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno spoke to Blum about how Santa Barbarians are reacting to President Bush's decision to lift the drilling ban. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What was your reaction when you heard that President Bush had lifted the executive ban on offshore oil drilling?
Marty Blum: Well, it's got everyone here a bit anxious, and it's got everyone talking about the oil spill. It was almost 40 years ago, but we still remember it here as if it just happened. I had a toddler and another baby on the way when my husband got a job offer and we moved here in October 1968. The oil spill happened shortly thereafter, and it was just this phenomenon, this horrible thing.
How did it affect you personally?
There's just nothing so pitiful as seeing a sea lion covered with oil, slowly dying because his skin can't breathe. When we came to town we purchased a little sailboat. It was covered with oil after the spill and destroyed. It all just made us deeply aware of our environment and made me realize how much people truly love living here. I saw grown men crying as they looked at the black cliffs, the tar on the beaches, the dead and dying mammals and birds. Everyone in town pitched in and tried to help in a lot of ways. We did recover from it. But our psyches did not.
After the spill, Santa Barbara became the epicenter of the modern environmental movement. How important was, and is, environmentalism for people in this city?
It's just a way of life for people here. In the year following the spill, we had an Earth Day festival, everyone including me came on bicycles. That was really the first Earth Day event, and ever since we've stayed connected to the natural environment and have remained dedicated to protecting it.
But those who support the lifting of the offshore drilling ban say the country needs this oil, and that regulations are stricter and technology is much better than it was in 1969. They insist there is much less chance of a major spill now. Do you agree?
Technology may have improved, but it hasn't made human error go away. Human error caused the 1969 spill. You can still push the wrong button. Humans do awful things sometimes. I do have the sense that you can do more slant drilling now and go deeper and pull up oil better than they used to, but the bigger point is that the amount of oil in our channel will not solve this crisis, and everyone knows it will take close to 20 years for oil to be pumped out of the ocean floor and make it to the gas pump.
Even most pro-business conservatives in Santa Barbara have supported the ban on oil drilling. But with rising fuel costs, is that still the case?
Yes. I still don't know anyone here who wants more platforms in the [Santa Barbara] channel. Just about everyone who lives here is an environmentalist. I used to think in the early '70s that it was a fight between business owners and environmentalists, but business owners here have an environmental streak in them, and environmentalists here are also businesspeople. It's all one.
Will we ever see such a peaceful co-existence of business and environmental interests across the country?
I don't know, it's such a fine balance, and with creeping oil prices it's unlikely. The situation is unique here. We pay so much for our houses, the cost of homes is ridiculous here. We are buying the whole idea of living in this city. When they do something to one of our parks, for example, if they try to take out one tree, you see 100 people out there opposing it. Or, they call the mayor.
The rest of the country apparently doesn't share Santa Barbara's view. In a recent Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll, 55 percent said they favor drilling in "environmentally important" areas with "proper controls." How much higher do you think gas prices will have to go before Santa Barbarans reach a tipping point and change their minds about offshore drilling?
Every person has thought about that here. Every tipping point is different. Mine is about 10 dollars a gallon. [Laughs.] Lots of people are on bikes. We are fourth in the nation in terms of the number of residents per capita who own a Prius. It's going to take a lot to convince the people here that more oil platforms in our channel is a good thing.
But there are still oil drills pumping as we speak in that channel, there are some 26 oil and gas drilling platforms off the Southern California coast, and 1,500 active wells, and we haven't heard about any catastrophic spills, have we?
We have little oil spills a lot out there, actually. They don't make it to the papers because they aren't huge, but they still occur. Those oil platforms also give off air emissions that are an additional environmental problem. The point is, additional platforms in our channel will be a terrible thing for the environment and could lead to another disaster.
What about onshore drilling? There used to be oil wells right in the heart of the city, yes?
Yes, but no one's interested in building any new oil wells in the city that I know about. We do have oil underneath us. We're on an oil field. It's not very high-quality oil, but we used to have oil wells in the city itself until the mid-'60s. We banned oil wells in the city. But about 10 miles to the south in the town of Carpinteria, there's a proposal to put an oil well right on city-hall property. With federal and state budgets in such bad shape and gas prices so high, I can see why a municipal government would want to make money easily without new taxes. I'm very grateful that it's in our charter to not do any oil drilling here.
Do you think John McCain's position on offshore oil drilling will cost him votes in this state in November?
Yes, especially here in Santa Barbara County. Telling us he advocates the idea of leaving drilling to the states is odd, since these platforms are in federal waters. He needs to be more articulate with his energy plan.
How about Barack Obama, what do you think of his energy plan?
He still needs to learn more, too, but at least he seems more open to alternative fuels like what we're doing here. In Santa Barbara we are pushing for clean, alternative fuels, clean energy alternatives. We need a presidential candidate to make a commitment to things like batteries, for example, so we can plug in our hybrids. We love saving energy here.
How much power do you have as mayor to prevent any more drilling off your city's coastline?
Well, we work with all federal and state agencies, and the governor is strong here. He's made strong statements about offshore oil drilling, and if I can help him in any way, I do. We also work with the [Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary] in the channel between our city and the islands, almost the entire channel now is a marine sanctuary. This is a very special place.