Santa Barbara Drilling Compromise Faces Skepticism

Politicians and activists on both the left and the right often speak of striking “a balance” between environmental and business concerns. Yet when just such a balance is proposed, many run for the exits.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the issue of offshore drilling, first after President Obama’s controversial decision last month to allow expansion of drilling in coastal waters, and most recently regarding a landmark deal between an oil company and an environmental law firm who have been battling each other for ten years over drilling off the Santa Barbara coast.

The deal, announced April 7 between PXP, an independent oil and gas company, and the Environment Defense Center (EDC), a law firm, allows PXP to expand drilling from one rig — the first new drilling off California in decades — in return for ceasing all drilling in the area within 14 years. 

The agreement is the first between an oil company and state or local groups agreeing to shut down production on federal land, Linda Krop, chief counsel for the EDC, said. “This is a very unique opportunity that’s never been done before in this country,” she said. The new drilling would be into the Tranquillon Ridge, an oil-rich geological formation near Santa Barbara.

But the deal has come under criticism. Santa Barbara Assemblyman Pedro Nava told the Los Angeles Times it was “still a flawed proposal,” and Abel Maldonado, who was confirmed Lieutenant Governor Monday afternoon told Capitol Notes “we needed to have 100% proof that those platforms would come down.”

The deal has not been helped by the BP oil rig disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, either.

The EDC represents a number of environmental groups in talks with PXP, including GOO!, or Get Oil Out, which was founded after a 1969 spill at a Santa Barbara offshore rig caused an environmental disaster. That spill contributed to the birth of the environmental movement, and stopped all new drilling off the California coast for 40 years.

The agreement still needs to be approved by the State Lands Commission, which rejected an earlier proposal by PXP and EDC in 2008. One of the Commission’s primary concerns was that, because it is a federal lease, there was no guarantee drilling would cease, because the state has no jurisdiction. To address this issue, in the redrafted agreement PXP will forfeit all profits, should drilling continue after 14 years.

Krop said those who criticize the agreement don’t realize that PXP is already drilling, and that its lease as it stands now is essentially in perpetuity. “When I talk to people who say ‘why would you agree to this new project?’ I point out that these platforms are already producing.”

“We know they don’t go away,” she said, referring to other rigs off Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, which have been operating since the 1960s.

There are currently 27 oil rigs off the California coast — 20 by Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including PXP’s four, and seven off Orange County. But California was excluded from a recent expansion of offshore drilling announced by President Obama.

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.

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