Environmental groups battle over oil drilling in Santa Barbara County

Reacting to news that former Ventura County legislator Hannah-Beth Jackson has become a paid consultant to help promote an agreement to allow new offshore oil drilling in Santa Barbara County, some environmental leaders stepped up their criticism Monday of a controversial contract between the oil company and Jackson’s client, the Environmental Defense Center.

The agreement requires EDC to advocate for the project before government agencies. In exchange, it says the Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production Co. "shall pay EDC’s reasonable fees, together with reimbursement for any of EDC’s reasonable and actual out-of-pocket costs incurred."

In addition, the company agreed to pay $100,000 to cover the environmental group’s legal costs.

Sara Wan of Malibu, founder of the Vote the Coast environmental group and a longtime member of the Coastal Commission, called the agreement "very disturbing."

"This is in essence an open-ended lobbying contract," Wan said. "Why would an environmental group agree to a lobbying contract? I think it was poor judgment on their part."

The Environmental Defense Center, representing two Santa Barbara nonprofits that have long opposed offshore oil drilling, struck a deal with PXP in 2008. Under the contract, EDC agreed to support the project in exchange for PXP’s commitment to abandon its offshore oil platforms and dismantle onshore processing facilities after 14 years, and also to donate 4,000 acres to a land trust.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, the Legislature’s leading critic of the proposed Tranquillon Ridge project, criticized the decision by Jackson — the Democrat who previously represented his district — to accept money to advocate for the project.

"Hannah-Beth has now become an agent for PXP," Nava said. "Oil money is like an oil spill: It spreads far and wide, and you never get the stain out."

The Jackson-Nava dispute has significant implications in local Democratic politics. The primary for the Democratic nomination to replace Nava, who is termed out this year, pits former Jackson aide Das Williams against Nava’s wife, Susan Jordan.

Williams supports the EDC deal with PXP; Jordan worked energetically to help persuade the State Lands Commission to reject the project in January 2009 and to lobby the Legislature to reject a proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have allowed the project to bypass Lands Commission review.

Jordan, founder of the Coastal Protection Network, is sharply critical of the provisions of the agreement that require the EDC to lobby for the project.

"It’s not an agreement that my organization would enter into," she said, "and I don’t know of any others that would."

In a story published Monday, The Star reported Jackson has been retained by the EDC to help promote the oil deal and will speak this week at a meeting of statewide environmental groups in Sacramento to try to quell their concerns.

Proponents say the agreement provides a historic opportunity to set an end date for drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. They assert that after the existing processing facilities are torn down there will be little incentive for the oil industry to pursue the development of additional leases in the area.

Critics question whether the terms of the agreement can be adequately enforced. They argue if California were to allow the first new drilling in state waters since 1968 to go forward, it would send a message to the federal government that the state is now receptive to opening new oil leases off its coast.

Jackson on Monday dismissed criticism of her role as an attempt by opponents to divert attention from the merits of the project.

"I’m not about to engage folks in a discussion about things that are not germane to what we’re doing," she said. "The entities I’m working for are highly regarded and respected organizations in the local area. I’m working on behalf of ending offshore oil drilling. That’s why I’m involved."