Santa Barbara, Oil Companies Clash in Offshore Drilling Battle

IT'S tough to fight city hall - especially if you are an oil company trying to do business in Santa Barbara. This affluent community, near the site of a 1969 oil spill, has proved a tenacious foe to offshore oil development. Santa Barbara is embroiled in a running feud with several oil companies and in some ways symbolizes the growing environmental conscience of California. The 1969 spill galvanized the community here, and also the state's ecology movement. But power shifted away environmentalism in the mid-'80s toward pro-oil conservatives.

Today, however, Santa Barbara may be leading a pendulum of public opinion swinging back toward environmentalism. In the upcoming California governor's race, for example, Republican candidate Pete Wilson, and Democrats Dianne Feinstein and John Van de Kamp all oppose offshore oil drilling.

Santa Barbara, which has stubbornly rebutted oil company efforts to expand production offshore, now appears to be on the cutting edge. Being on that cutting edge has done nothing to endear the community to the oil industry.

``We worked with them for five years to develop the reservoirs on these leases,'' says Steve Suellentrop, the Atlantic Richfield Company's engineering manager for the Western district. ``We feel we've taken all the appropriate mitigations necessary.''

Early next month, ARCO, one of the nation's largest oil refiners, will appeal a decision against them by the California Superior Court. The company originally had applied to build a drilling and production platform two miles out in the Santa Barbara channel, but was blocked by the State Lands Commission after vigorous opposition testimony by Santa Barbara residents and scientists.

Chevron has spent 10 years and and millions of dollars trying to get the oil ashore. A permit the company had sought to haul oil by tanker was appealed by Get Oil Out (GOO), an environmental activist group formed in 1969. The Coastal Commission sided with GOO.

``There is a higher frequency of spills, they're dirtier, make bigger messes, and are harder to clean,'' than a pipeline says Rob Almy, of Santa Barbara County's energy department.

``What's gone on in Alaska and Huntington Beach, has not lessened our resolve to enforce the county's policy which says tankering of oil is not good idea,'' says Bill Wallace, county supervisor. ``All transportation should be in pipelines.''

Chevron says it has tried pipelines. But when the company tried to get permits to build a pipeline to Los Angeles, it was blocked by lawsuits.

Behind the opposition is concern about another spill. After Union Oil's Platform A blew out in 1969, the town was shocked at the sight of heavy asphalt-like residue on beaches and oil-drenched seagulls. An eight-year moratorium on offshore oil drilling ensued.

Currently, the State Lands Commission has a moratorium on development on state lands until an overview of potential impact is completed.

All this is frustrating to oil companies. ``If a plane crashes, you don't completely disallow air travel; you learn, improve and continue flying,'' says Michael Marcy, Chevron's public affairs manager. Today Chevron says it has gone the extra mile.

``We've met with Native Americans, relocated a school to create a preserve for the Monarch butterfly, built a co-generating unit so we wouldn't have use the county's electricity, and built a desalination plant,'' Mr. Marcy says.

Such cooperation is given grudging respect by environmentalists. ``Oil companies have people who are a lot more environmentally aware and sensitive,'' Mr. Almy says. The county realized it would have to adapt, too if it is not to have such projects ``forced on us by the federal government,'' Almy says.

Marcy says oil companies are getting increasingly fed up with the regulations. ``They're moving exploration to Angola, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. But that still means they'll have to bring that oil back by tanker.''

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