Environmentalists Protest Schwarzenegger Flip-Flop on Drilling Plan

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has claimed its first political victim, a compromise plan over offshore drilling in California which might have actually reduced drilling there over the long term.

On Monday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled his support for the plan, which would have allowed new drilling into the Tranquillon Ridge formation off the coast of Santa Barbara.

But the T-ridge deal would have also required the company involved in the drilling, Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP), to eventually cease all drilling off Santa Barbara, as well as remove its four oil rigs there.

Linda Krop, an attorney for the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center which negotiated the deal with PXP, said the plan had strong local support. She called Schwarzenegger’s decision “an irresponsible and uninformed reaction.”

“For folks in Sacramento it’s a political issue. They don’t live with the reality that we have of these platforms off our coast,” Krop said. “We’re trying to shut them down and we’re not getting any support.”

Krop said she had put a call in to the Governor’s office, but had not received a response.

The Governor, who until yesterday had hoped to use revenue from the drilling to help keep California state parks open, said he had a change of heart after watching TV coverage of the Gulf of Mexico spill over the weekend.

“I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem. It will not happen here in California, and this is why I’m withdrawing my support for the T-Ridge project,” Schwarzenegger said at a press conference concerning wildfire preparedness.

But Krop pointed out that, under federal law, it is impossible for any government to interfere in a drilling lease once it has been sold, which means PXP can continue to operate off Santa Barbara “indefinitely.” The deal EDC worked out with PXP allowed the company to drill sideways from an existing rig into the Tranquillon Ridge in exchange for shutting the three other rigs in nine years, and the fourth and final rig in 14.

Local Congresswoman Lois Capps, who supports the T-ridge plan, pointed out that the same oil rig that caused a devastating spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 is still producing oil, 40 years later. “This is unacceptable and shows the need to support innovative ways to end current drilling activities, like the plan put forward by the Environmental Defense Center and Get Oil Out,” said Capps in a statement released after the Governor’s announcement.

PXP did not respond to a request for comment.

The collapse of the T-ridge plan may foreshadow the demise of another highly-leveraged compromise: the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill. Republican Senator Graham has said expansion of offshore drilling is crucial to getting Republican votes for the bill. But offshore drilling is now a political hot potato, especially for Democrats, some of whom had already said before the Gulf spill they would not vote for expansion of drilling.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.