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How Will Gulf Oil Spill Affect California?

Audio

Aired 5/7/10

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has grabbed headlines across the nation this week. We talk about how the oil spill could affect the push for off-shore drilling along the California coast. And, what impact will the oil spill have on gas prices, and the local fishing industry?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Actually to another environmental subject, it’s the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s already considered one of the worst ecological disasters on record and it has touched California in a sense. This week Governor Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for an expansion of oil drilling off the California coast. So, Tony, first of all, why did the governor want oil drilling expanded in the first place?

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Well, like the City of San Diego, the State of California has an enormous budget deficit, enormous deficit. And it’s got a systemic problem of needing more money than it can gather through taxes and the governor was looking at oil revenues as one curative. Then he watched those images on television of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon out in the Gulf of Mexico and that water filling up with oil and coming ever closer to the shore and he changed his mind. The politics of oil are changing even as we speak. The Department of Interior, Ken Salazar, the director, he stopped issuing any new leases in areas that had already been approved. Of course, the President of the United States has promised us a decision later this month on the overarching issue. The politics are changing literally by the hour as that sheen gets closer, first, to the offshore islands there off Louisiana and then creeps towards the coast somewhere between Texas and Florida. We just don’t know where it’s going at this point.

PENNER: Well, let’s hang in there with the idea of the politics of it all. Miriam, how were environmental and political groups responding to the governor’s original support of the oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast?

MIRIAM RAFTERY (Editor, East County Magazine): Well…

PENNER: I mean, considering we – many of us remember the 1969 oil spill.

RAFTERY: Well, I certainly do. I lived in Santa Barbara not long after that and saw the oil that continued to be cleaned up there as well as in Alaska sometimes years after. And when we look at any of these projects, whether it’s a Powerlink or it’s an oil – you know, oil drilling, we need to consider the longterm consequences of cleaning up if there is a disaster, you know, rebuilding if there is a wildfire, cleaning up if there is an oil spill. And that needs to be factored into the equation against the short term gains, I think. But certainly I think the – his change of heart is being cheered by environmentalists and some politicians who are changing their minds. They’re – they were for it, you know, after they were against it or the other way around.

PENNER: Yeah. But there…

RAFTERY: Before they were against it.

PENNER: But there are the economics of the situation, the reality of the economics. The state…

RAFTERY: Absolutely.

PENNER: The state, David, excuse me, was going to benefit economically…

RAFTERY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …from expanding the oil drilling to the tune of about $100 million a year. What happens now? How can the state replace that $100 million?

DAVID KING (Founder/Editor, sandiegonewsroom.com): Well, whether the governor was actually going to be able to get that through, the legislature was – is questionable whether or not, you know – It was put as a specific budget holder in order to keep state parks open, to fund state parks so that there’s the sweetener to incentivize people to support it including green types and people who like the outdoors. But in terms of whether or not the legislature would have actually supported a budget and supported this particular project, it’s doubtful.

PENNER: So when we take a look at the line-up, let’s say, of supporters and politicians, especially those in Sacramento, were there any surprises on how California politicians were lining up on this oil drilling question? Miriam?

RAFTERY: Yes, Gloria, the answer would be absolutely. Look at the state senate race, for example, where we have Barbara Boxer, longtime chair of the Environmental Committee and opponent of the offshore drilling. But among her two Republican opponents we have one who’s for it and one who’s against it, so some clear choices there, I think, in the Republican primary for folks. We just did a story on that actually where we went out and we interviewed or looked up the statements of all of the different Congressional members who represent San Diego County, all five of them, as well as all of the opponents that are running against them, and we got folks on record as who’s for and who’s against it. So you can find that on our site.

PENNER: So what is the recourse now, Tony? I mean, there was – it was all set up. There was going to be Houston-based PXP, I believe, is the company that was going to drill into state waters off Santa Barbara. What happens to that oil exploration company now?

PERRY: I think it all depends on how bad the explosion in the Gulf gets. If, indeed, as some people are saying, it’s not going to be the worst, worst scenario—there’s no good scenario here, not with 11 dead and 17 wounded and hundreds of millions of dollars lost already—but there are least bad scenarios, and if we get one of those where it doesn’t really come ashore, or if it comes ashore and is blocked, or if it comes ashore sort of as a light sheen rather than that really glop that we saw at Exxon Valdez or Santa Barbara, then the politics start to change and you could see some backpedaling and, well, maybe we can do it with greater regulation or something. But until we know how bad things are going to be in the Gulf, I don’t think we can really gauge, you know, what the politics long term are going to be.

PENNER: David.

KING: I think Tony’s helped identify kind of a misperception about environmental laws, that they’re intended to protect the environment. Environmental laws are to protect humans as if the harm to the environment won’t happen unless the oil washes up on the beach that we want to sit on, and there’s no harm to the environment while this oil is splashing around in the ocean and fish are eating it. When we talk about California’s oil, I think that we need to understand that it’s not the highest quality oil and most of it is used to make asphalt. So as to balancing against the potential impacts to California, we consider the fact that if we don’t go out now and drill for oil, the oil will still be there possibly in the future when we have better drilling technologies that might be cleaner. If we go out and take the oil, we’re limited to the technologies we have today. So applying the precautionary principle, it’s reasonable to wait and see if drilling technologies improve and if we need that oil, if we can’t find another substitute for oil to make asphalt for streets.

PERRY: Energy exploration comes with risks. I mean, the City of San Diego has a department called Risk Management, most cities do. Ask the coal miners of West Virginia whether there are risks of getting coal. There are risks to oil. Ask anybody. Three Mile Island, ask about the potential risks of nuclear. We have one right up the coast. We may have to hitch up our pants and say how much risk are we willing to take? It’s going to be bad in the Gulf. It’s real bad. But will it be the mother of all disasters? And I think we have to wait – or we will wait and we’ll see how that is before people start to commit themselves and before the President of the United States, later this month, makes a…

PENNER: Well…

PERRY: …more solid policy statement on long term drilling.

PENNER: …what you’re really talking about is establishing a clearer policy on oil exploration, on energy in general. And, Miriam, I’m not sure that we really do have a clear policy in California. It seems as though we just go with the wind on this.

RAFTERY: Well…

PERRY: The flow.

RAFTERY: …I certainly…

PENNER: Going with the flow, I should – yeah.

RAFTERY: Yeah, drill, baby, drill has changed a little bit in light of spill, baby, spill, that we’re seeing on the news. And I agree with Tony. I think the verdict is still out and we’re going to see a lot of waffling and jumping back and forth, I think, among our politicians as they try to put a finger up and see which way the political wind is blowing.

PENNER: David.

KING: One reason why you’re not going to get much of a barometer on where everybody in Sacramento stands is most drilling happens outside of the ocean waters of the state of California. Once you get past three miles, it’s federal water. Well, what our congressmen think is important but what people in Sacramento think doesn’t really matter. It’s largely symbolic unless we’re talking about a project like the T-Ridge project where the drilling was slant drilling and so it would’ve come within the waters of the state of California, which go three miles out.

PENNER: That’s the water off Santa Barbara.

PERRY: Right.

PENNER: My understanding it was on a rig on federal…

KING: Right.

PENNER: …property or federal waters but it was going to drill into state waters.

KING: Right, it would – it was slant drilling.

PERRY: Slant drilling.

KING: Yeah. It’s five miles out but the waters of the state of California would be impacted.

PENNER: So we had that Santa Barbara oil spill, Tony, that we were talking about earlier. How powerful is that memory today in shaping energy policy?

PERRY: I think it’s enormous. And it would be even more enormous if we had then the media we have now where we had a lot of clips and such to be shown over and over and over on television. But I think it forms the mentality of Californians to a large degree as Three Mile Island does about nuclear. Although Three Mile Island’s very complex—I say this as the brother of someone who worked in the nuclear industry—it’s not what you think, it’s both less serious and more serious. How’s that for splitting it down the middle? But, yes, Santa Barbara, I will say this, 1979, our honeymoon, walking on the beach ten years after and my feet got absolutely black with tar. I remember that. I remember the Santa Barbara spill.

RAFTERY: Yes. I do, too.

PENNER: Miriam.

RAFTERY: In the seventies, I was a student there at Santa Barbara, and I can well remember going for a swim in the ocean and having to come home and chop off large pieces of my hair because of the clumps of tar from the oil that got, you know, got in my hair from swimming there four years after that spill.

PENNER: A final comment from you, David. The question is if this Gulf oil spill had not happened, do you think California would be moving ahead with offshore oil exploration?

KING: Yes.

PENNER: Okay, well, that was – that was simple enough. Do you – Miriam, do you agree?

RAFTERY: Most likely.

PENNER: Okay, and Tony?

PERRY: Slowly but with all sorts of possibility for lawsuits, political action and such, we would be moving ahead but it would be a long way ahead.

PENNER: Well, thank you very much. Tony Perry, LA Times; Miriam Raftery from East County Magazine; and from sandiegonewsroom.com David King. Again, I’m glad you could be with us, David. First time.

KING: Thank you.

PENNER: And thanks to our callers and our listeners. I’m Gloria Penner and this has been the Editors Roundtable.

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