Tom Fulks

Measure A might be our last, best hope against Big Oil off SLO County’s coast

Columnist Tom Fulks
Columnist Tom Fulks jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County’s far-right majority on the Board of Supervisors has laid out a welcome mat for offshore oil development.

Adopting a resolution Tuesday opposing the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, Supervisors Lynn Compton, Debbie Arnold and John Peschong slipped Big Oil a perfumed invitation to drill.

In so doing, they’ve set up our county’s last remaining defense against offshore drilling — Measure A — for attack.

Measure A, adopted by voters in 1986, requires simple-majority voter approval of county permits issued for onshore projects serving offshore oil developments such as piers, pipelines and processing plants.

The board majority tried hoodwinking their skeptics Tuesday with a last-minute amendment to “support Measure A,” a cynical fig leaf any middle-school civics student would know is meaningless: Supervisors must always abide by voter-adopted ordinances.

If the board’s majority truly, honestly opposed offshore oil, they wouldn’t attempt to derail permanent protection from drilling by opposing a marine sanctuary.

Now, the county’s last stand against offshore drilling is Measure A.

In opposing the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, the new conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors signals support for offshore oil development.

Shell Oil tested the ordinance in 1988, bringing three permits before voters for onshore support projects. After the most expensive campaign in the county’s history at the time, voters rejected Shell’s San Miguel Project, suspending Big Oil’s interest in this county’s coast.

News accounts then, many written by me, reported Shell spent some $20 for each “yes” vote in its losing effort. Imagine what they’d be willing to spend now.

In the 1980s, two key arguments against offshore drilling were widely accepted by elected officials, fishermen and stakeholders like the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce:

▪  Even if all the oil off the county’s coast were extracted, it would add a mere week’s supply to the nation’s crude oil inventory.

▪  Given the low quality of the tar-like crude, it wouldn’t be worth the cost to extract and process.

The national benefit didn’t justify the local risk. Nothing has changed that fundamental equation.

Since then, a series of federal drilling bans for offshore California were adopted, forestalling the threat.

That’s all changed. The bans have expired and the Trump administration — placing high priority on expediting fossil fuel development — now controls the federal waters off our coast.

While crude prices are relatively low, the World Bank forecasts prices rising — soon. As Trump demolishes important regulations — driving down production costs — the previously unfavorable economics of local offshore oil extraction could change quickly.

Absent permanent drilling bans, a marine sanctuary would afford the county’s coast its only real protection.

While Compton expressed outrage that anyone would accuse her of being friendly to Big Oil, her vote against the sanctuary belies her indignation.

In another specious attempt to mollify sanctuary supporters — who turned out Tuesday in twice the numbers as opponents — Compton and Co. agreed to consider a bill authored by Congressman Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, to ban offshore drilling along the coast of Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Yet more Comptonian fakery. Carbajal’s bill — scheduled to return to the board Feb. 28 bundled with other proposed legislative positions — has zero chance of passage by a Republican-controlled Congress and White House.

The board majority surely knows this. Supporting a stillborn bill carries no political risk and less sincerity.

Not just deceptive, this ploy insults anyone truly opposed to offshore drilling.

The telling problem with so brashly opposing a marine sanctuary at this time is that it’s so entirely unnecessary. There’s virtually no chance the sanctuary designation would even be considered for some years, given current political conditions in Washington.

All the board majority accomplished was to deliberately launch a bright-red signal flare alerting Big Oil that the county’s coast is ripe for the picking, whenever the economics are right for another go at offshore drilling.

All it would take for that to succeed is a mega-dollar political campaign to convince a one-vote majority of the county electorate.

Could San Luis Obispo County voters be counted on again to reject Big Oil?

They’d face an outside-money blitz made common a few years ago after Peschong moved to town, toting his Sacramento-style politics in a carpetbag.

Abetted by Peschong, county supervisor campaigns have ballooned each election cycle from about $80,000 in local money to two or three times that in outside money.

It should be no surprise then, someday hence, to see Big Oil’s big money simply overwhelm local opposition.

Measure A’s protection of the county’s coast is paper thin.

Thanks to the far-right majority on the Board of Supervisors, we may have to find out just how strong our lone defense actually is.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer. His column runs in The Tribune every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Matthew Hoy.

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