The 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara was a major catalyst for environmental reforms, and spurred the creation of GOO! (Get the Oil Out), an environmental group dedicated to opposing offshore oil drilling. But something has changed in the intervening decades.
Thirty-nine years later, GOO! is still around. But this April the group did something astonishing. It publicly supported an oil company's proposal to drill off the coast of Santa Barbara.Environmentally sensitive oil exploration and extraction has been possible for quite some time. The National Audubon Society and a state affiliate first allowed oil and gas development in their preserves decades ago, on the condition that oil companies agreed to various measures to lessen the impact of such development. In one case, Audubon allowed drilling and extraction in a nature preserve too sensitive for tourism or birdwatching. In another, ten years after drilling ended it was impossible to identify where it had taken place.
Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company proposed drilling 22 wells from a platform 4.7 miles from land. It made numerous concessions to the local environmental groups that would curtail drilling in about a decade -- and in the end even the adamantly "no-drilling" crowd agreed that the deal was beneficial for everyone. The Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit environmental law firm, endorsed the plan. Abe Powell, president of GOO!, told the Los Angeles Times it was "good for the community." Terry Leftgoff, a former GOO! executive director, wrote in the Santa Barbara Independent the deal was "a brilliant proposal that finally gives the public something back: the certain removal of four offshore oil platforms, the decommissioning of a notorious industrial plant, and the reversion of rural land subjugated into oil development back into the public trust as parkland."
When an environmental group formed for the sole purpose of opposing offshore oil drilling warmly embraces a plan to drill off its own coast, you know something important has changed in our culture: Americans have recognized that offshore oil drilling is largely safe.
I first wrote about this in 1991 after interviewing some of the preserve managers. (I can't find the op-eds online, but I found this letter.) As one described it, when Audubon was approached by an oil company, their response was essentially "you can drill if you pay us royalties and can prevent the following impacts." This prompted the oil companies to devote their energies to meeting Audubon's demands, leading to significant innovation.
Government agencies often impose requirements on oil and gas development on federal lands or offshore, but they are rarely so tailored to the specific ecological conditions of a given site. Government agencies are also less adept than private owners at negotiating these sorts of deals, particularly when constrained by broad regulatory requirements. Nonetheless, when oil companies have an incentive to reduce the environmental impacts of oil development, they are often able to do quite a bit.