Dan Haifley at Santa Cruz Harbor | Kyle Martin
By Kyle Martin
RELATED STORY: 100,000 kids at sea
Though residents of the Central Coast have for years enjoyed freedom from offshore oil drilling in what is now the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, new California legislation serves as a reminder that coastal communities haven’t always been protected.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Sept. 8 that effectively blocks the Trump administration’s plans to expand offshore drilling up to three miles offshore in California waters.
The sponsor of the bill, SB 834, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said this legislation purposefully “closes the door” on expansion of the oil industry in the state.
“I think it’s important because the people of California do not want any further drilling of oil on our coast,” Jackson said in an interview with Voices. “We have made that very clear.”
Seeds of resistance in Santa Cruz
This isn’t the first time Californians have pushed back against oil development, but it is the most recent move against expansion.
“I think, in fact, the oil industry should give up hope in trying to drill for oil off California,” said Dan Haifley, executive director for local educational organization O’Neill Sea Odyssey. “I think it would just be very difficult for them to do, for a variety of reasons.”
Years after the infamous 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, Haifley ventured through the Central Coast, advocating for an initiative commissioned by the City of Santa Cruz to prevent more damage to California waters. Haifley says the city-sponsored research and development project was originally called the “Oil Information Program.”
That initiative, launched in 1986, advocated for cleaner shores and environmental responsibility and was a key player in establishing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1992.
Haifley traveled through California from 1986 to 1990, mobilizing a movement among coastal communities to establish ordinances that would prohibit offshore oil development in their cities without a vote by the people.
In March of 1985, Santa Cruz became the first of 26 California cities and counties to pass the local legislation — by an 82 percent margin. “It cost money,” Haifley said. “It was complex.”
It boiled down to a simple notion toward offshore drilling in the state: “The people here don’t want it,” Haifley said.
But the fight to block offshore oil was far from over. A group then known as the Western Oil and Gas Association — now the Western States Petroleum Association — took legal action against communities that passed the protective ordinances, claiming the laws violated interstate commerce rules.
The lawsuit was ultimately struck down by Consuelo Marshall, a U.S. District judge in Los Angeles, who ruled in favor of the local governments.
Now, with the passage of SB 834, Haifley has suspicions history might repeat itself, most likely by way of another lawsuit.
“I’m certain this will go to court,” Haifley said.
When asked via email about the possibility of another lawsuit, Western States Petroleum spokesman Kevin Slagel offered no speculation, but provided an official statement.
“As it affects existing leases, SB 834 could have an immediate negative impact on our state’s energy supply and Californians who work in our industry,” Slagel wrote.
Sen. Jackson’s response to claims that the bill would jeopardize oil industry jobs is a hope that switching to renewable energy will provide work for fossil fuel employees.
“Renewable energy jobs are going to be in the tens of thousands. The jobs for those doing offshore oil drilling are limited and minimal,” Jackson said. “I appreciate (that) everybody wants to work, but I think what we need to do right now is prioritize the health of the planet.” She said she admires the grit of energy workers, but wants to see a change in the country’s “addiction” to fossil fuels.
“They’re hard-working folks, but I want to see them working in industries that are positive, that would give this planet a chance to survive as we face an irresponsible addiction to fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emitters,” Jackson said.
Demand for oil
Many in the energy sector voice concerns beyond industry employment — namely, the country’s high demand for oil.
“It’s not about the oil industry,” said Dave Quast, an outspoken advocate for offshore drilling in California and adjunct faculty who teaches communications at the University of Southern California. “It’s about Californians’ access to cheap and affordable energy.”
Quast writes in favor of local oil drilling development in Energy In Depth, a pro-oil and pro-natural gas project launched in 2009 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Quast argues that SB 834’s ban is bad for California “not because it’s going to stop something that’s going to happen anyway, but because it limits our options.”
For the next few decades, “we’re still going to have a major need for oil,” Quast said. “If we don’t (have access to drilling in California), we’re just going to be importing oil from places like Russia, Venezuela — people we don’t want to be doing business with.”
As for environmental concerns, Quast said “solar and wind don’t replace oil.”
Quast also says that “oil rigs actually help marine life thrive,” a point that WSPA has pushed online in favor of offshore oil development.
Which isn’t necessarily backed up by science. There have been studies on it, though.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, scientists with UC Santa Barbara took a deep dive into the possible environmental effects of decommissioning oil platforms of the coasts of California. (A full report of their findings, published in 2003, can be found here.)
Mark Carr, one of several investigators for the project, offered insight and expertise on the matter. His group’s studies, he said, focused on forms of oceanic larvae that found a new habitat on the platforms.
“It was back when the price of oil had declined and some of the oil companies started making comments like they wanted to decommission some of the platforms,” Carr said. “Importantly, it never happened.”
The scientists examined the possible effects of leaving the oil platforms partially or entirely intact, toppling them to the seafloor or removing them completely.
“By leaving the platforms there, you certainly don’t harm the [marine life] populations in the region. You would if the animals on the platform did more poorly than on the natural reef,” Carr said. “Leaving them in certainly would not be a cost to populations throughout the region. Because it’s good habitat, you increase the habitat for those organisms, so it would a net plus.”
The effects of the platforms — positive and negative — differ depending on where the platforms are built, whether there is natural reef and habitat already there, and the size of the platforms, Carr said.
But what about oil spills?
‘As far as spills and whatnot, it’s not an issue because no one is doing it,” Quast said.
From the science community, however, Carr offered another view.
“Clearly that’s not good for the environment. Clearly it’s happened in the past,” Carr said. “That cannot be positive; it can only be negative. It’s really a question of, ‘what’s the likelihood of that happening?’ And is the risk worth the environmental impacts?”
He noted the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and historic spills in the Gulf of Mexico as testament to the disastrous effects of offshore drilling.
Just last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles found a Houston-based oil pipeline company guilty of criminal charges for a 2015 Santa Barbara oil spill. The 123,000-gallon leak shook the local community — beaches were tarnished with crude oil, wildlife was killed, and tourism and fishing industries were harmed by the pipeline company’s negligence, according to the Associated Press.
The spill also hurt production for local oil rigs, some of which were owned by Texas fossil fuel giant Exxon Mobil. The AP reports that seven offshore oil refineries in California waters now sit idle following the incident.
Referring to the infamous BP oil spill in 2010 that spewed 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the lives of 11 oil rig workers, Carr said,“To be frank, when that happened, many people thought that the future of offshore drilling was just not possible.”
“I could not imagine that happening again,” Carr said.
According to Sen. Jackson, the possibility of such a disaster is less likely in California now that the governor has signed SB 834.
“From the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill to the 2015 Refugio spill, I represent a community that knows all too well the devastation oil spills can bring to our economy and environment,” Jackson said in a press release from the governor. “I’m very pleased to see this legislation signed into law, because we’ve always known that if we don’t drill, it can’t spill.”
Have something to say about this story? Comment below or send us a letter.