California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew support Monday for a plan he had championed to allow new offshore drilling off Santa Barbara County for the first time since 1969. The decision is being received with sighs of relief by environmental groups as well as cries of “foul” amidst the state’s need for jobs and revenue. Some see hypocrisy in the move, while others have applauded Governor Schwarzenegger's new independence.
Citing the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Schwarzenegger – who had just last Friday defended the proposed Santa Barbara project – said the images from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill on the Gulf Coast changed his mind. "I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill and oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem,” he said at a news conference Monday. “That will not happen here in California, and this is why I am withdrawing my support for the T-Ridge project."
The governor had previously argued that the state, which is facing a $20 billion budget shortfall, should approve the plan to raise as much as $100 million a year in new revenue.
Criticism of Schwarzenegger's reversal came quickly from those who say accidents should not drive public policy.
“The US is not going to become any less dependent on fossil fuels because of this horrible accident,” says Barbara Shook, Houston bureau chief for Energy Intelligence Group. “As long as Californians drive automobiles, they will have to have oil from somewhere. Do they want it from California where it will generate local jobs and revenues, or ... from Indonesia or the Middle East where sources are unreliable?”
The space program was not abandoned because of the shuttle explosion, says Ms. Shook, and people do not stop flying because of airline crashes, she reminds. Oil is still needed to lubricate even the windmill farms approved recently off Massachusetts, she says.
But environmental groups are standing up to applaud the governor's decision.
“This was born of due caution considering the value of California’s coast both economically and aesthetically,” says Wade Crowfoot, West Coast political director for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Schwarzenegger showed compelling leadership in this important time of transition to clean energy," he said. "California has taken the lead in this and we salute him.”
Mr. Crowfoot says Schwarzenegger’s decision is a recognition of the fact that technology has not yet arrived to make oil drilling safe, and that preparedness for spills is also unacceptable.
“This Gulf disaster really shows us we need to wean ourselves off the addiction to oil, and the state of California is at the forefront of finding clean alternatives,” says Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club, California. “This will help us to kick the oil habit, eventually.”
Schwarzenegger's move came the same day as he vetoed a bill that would have banned smoking at state parks and beaches. Supporters of the bill said it would keep thousands of toxic cigarette butts from ending up on beaches. But that dichotomy doesn't phase political observers.
“I don’t think there is anything inherently contradictory about dropping an offshore drilling project and vetoing a ban on smoking in state parks and beaches,” says Jessica Levinson, political director for the Center for Governmental Studies. “While he may not be the most conservative official in the world, Schwarzenegger is still a Republican, and his decision reflects his opinion that the state government should have a limited role in the lives of the state’s residents.”
The two decisions show a new ease and confidence in Schwarzenegger, others say.
"These decisions are a welcome illustration of a politician who isn’t running for office and is therefore making his own judgments based on his own values,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University. “He can look at the oil spill and say, ‘I made a mistake and don’t want California to look like that.' While at the same time look at the smoking ban and say, ‘This is antithetical to government intrusion into people’s lives.’ "
Counters Mr. Pitney: “If we had just had a gasoline shortage and a fire in a state park, these decisions would have come out the other way.”
The Monitor's View: Obama and offshore drilling: a crude move