Gulf Tragedy is a Grim Reminder that California Needs to Fight for Clean Energy

Flash back 41 years ago to a January morning in 1969 on an offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel. And back to now - the oil spill that is devastating the Gulf of Mexico is a wake-up call for California. As anyone of a certain age will recall, the blow-out on a rig off Santa Barbara dumped 100,000 barrels of heavy, viscous crude into the sea over a 10-day period. About thirty-five miles of beach were covered with reeking black goo, and thousands of birds perished.

Image removed.

(Platform A. It was here that, on January 25, 1969, a huge blowout in the ocean floor occurred, and a spill covered Santa Barbara's harbor and the nearby coast with thick sludge. Photo by Flickr user dsearls, under Creative Commons licensing.)

That disaster helped kick-start the modern environmental movement, and raised basic questions about the safety of offshore oil development that have yet to be satisfied. It also galvanized decades of bipartisan opposition to offshore oil development in California, a sentiment that remains strong – from former Governor Pete Wilson to CIA Director Leon Panetta to local governments too.

Offshore oil – or rather, opposition to it along our fragile California coast – has a special history for me.  I actually started my career in 1978, when I got in my little white VW bug and traveled from Crescent City south along Route 1, talking with local merchants and handing out No Offshore Oil posters.  A lot of things have changed since 1978, but one thing sure as heck hasn’t: our ability to develop offshore oil safely, or deal with the aftermath of the inevitable spills. In 1969, they were using hay bales to sop up the oil in the Santa Barbara Channel. Fast forward 41 years to the Gulf of Mexico – and yep, they’re still using those hay bales. This is the tremendous technological progress the oil companies tout when they’re pushing for more offshore drilling? We don’t need it in California, thank you.


And talk about adding insult to injury: While the Gulf of Mexico’s rich fisheries and abundant wildlife smother under a blanket of oil, while the ruptured well continues to spew raw crude at the rate of 25,000 barrels a day, today a bunch of the dirtiest Texas oil refiners have presented signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would roll back California’s landmark clean energy legislation, AB 32.

Passed in 2006, AB 32 is already stabilizing the rules of the game which in turn stimulates development of clean energy technology, attracts venture capital from around the world, generates thousands of new jobs, cuts greenhouse gas emissions and reduces dependence on fossil fuels. That last element is what has the oil companies in an uproar, of course: anything that reduces dependence on their dirty, dangerous fuels cuts into their profits. They claim their initiative is about saving California jobs. That’s ridiculous -- it’s about keeping us addicted to oil. 

So please: let’s stop these petroleum pushers. They’re already messing up the Gulf of Mexico – don’t let them do it to California. If, as we expect, the Texas oil company initiative gets on the ballot, don’t vote for it. Better yet, join our campaign, Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, and fight this ruse. Some of California’s largest employers like Google, Applied Materials, Virgin America and Levi Strauss have signed on to fight this battle. The campaign’s honorary chairman is George Shultz, the Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration and a lifelong Republican.

And remember: stopping clean energy in California is only part of the oil companies’ larger agenda. They want to do to our state what they’re doing to Louisiana: get at that offshore oil, our incomparable marine resources no matter what. Petroleum production continues in the Santa Barbara Channel, and the pressure to open the California coast to exploitation remains. Today Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recognized the danger to our $60 billion coastal tourism and fishing economies and withdrew his support for any extended drilling in the Tranquillon Ridge fields, off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base. He, too, sees that it’s just not worth the risk. We have too much at stake.

We don’t need more offshore oil development in California – we need a moratorium on new drilling. Here’s why:

- California’s offshore waters constitute one of the richest marine environments on the planet. Coastal upwelling brings nutrient-laden water to the surface, establishing the base for a food web that sustains robust fisheries, millions of seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals. The rocky reefs shelter a vast array of marine life, but they are also particularly vulnerable to oil spills. Our state fisheries are a sustainable resource, and we need to protect them from unwise and unsustainable energy development.

- Offshore oil spill clean up technology is inadequate to the risks. We’re seeing that now in the Gulf of Mexico, and we saw it last year in Australia, where a rupture on an offshore rig belched oil for 10 weeks, creating a 20,000 square mile slick. The oil companies honk about the “progress” they’ve made in offshore drilling technology over the years, but the risk to the environment has not really changed. Booms, absorbents and dispersants aren’t working well off Louisiana -- and they’d fare even worse in California, where rough seas, high winds and strong currents are the norm.

The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an unfurling tragedy. Let’s learn from it. Let’s take a step back and let’s take a very hard look at our energy policy. We need clear headed independent analysis of the state of offshore drilling and clean up technology and weigh its obvious risks.

Moreover, we need an state energy policy that benefits the nation as a whole rather than a handful of fossil fuel producers and refiners. We need a policy based on energy efficiency in our homes, businesses and cars, and on energy sources that are clean and sustainable. Such a policy would do more than help the environment, though it’d certainly do that. It would also secure our energy sources, ending our dependence on foreign oil producers; it would create millions of jobs in emerging new energy sectors; and it would once again place America on the leading cusp of research and development.

We already have a template for such a policy in California. It’s called AB 32. Let’s hold on to what we’ve got.