An oil company’s quest to increase oil drilling off Santa Barbara's coast was dealt a significant blow at this week’s California State Lands Commission meeting. Venoco, which operates Platform Holly – the only oil drilling platform in state waters – has proposed to expand its existing leases offshore the city of Goleta. If approved, the project would constitute the first new or expanded lease in state waters since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. But after listening to public testimony decrying the proposal, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom responded, “That project’s dead.”
Newsom’s comment echoes those made by State Controller Betty Yee in a statement last week reaffirming her opposition to new oil drilling off California’s coast – including that which Venoco has proposed. “Oil drilling must not be expanded,” Controller Yee announced. “The Santa Barbara Channel is a world-renowned habitat that hosts vast terrestrial and marine diversity that deserves protection from the adverse environmental impacts of further oil drilling.”
Santa Barbara County residents have long lived in the shadow of the oil operations off their coast. Oil spill fears were revived as recently as 2015, when an All American Plains pipeline broke, spilling more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil at Refugio Beach, a disaster that killed sea lions and birds, caused several beach closures and left oil Platform Holly non-operational.
At the commission’s meeting, advocates for coastal protection pointed out that approving an expanded oil lease and allowing new drilling in state waters would contradict the commission’s own unanimously approved December resolution against any further oil development off California’s coast. The resolution, like a similar one made by the California Coastal Commission, was prompted by concerns over what new federal energy policies might be.
“Given the change in the federal administration, maintaining a strong anti-oil, pro-coastal protection message is critical,” Surfrider Foundation California Policy Manager Jennifer Savage told commissioners during the meeting’s public comment period. “The proposed expansion would further subject Santa Barbara residents for risks they’ve struggled to diminish for decades now,” she continued. “It’s simply not fair.”
Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips listed examples of potential harm Venoco’s project would cause and echoed previous speakers saying approval would “send a signal to the Trump administration that California’s coast is open to oil drilling.” Phillips asked the commissioners to direct staff to “reject any new drilling in state waters and any new proposals in state waters.”
At that point, Lt. Gov. Newsom responded. “I wanted to just say that project’s dead,” he said.
So with two of the three voting members of the State Lands Commission now publicly opposed to the project, environmental advocates are optimistic that California’s longstanding opposition to new oil drilling will remain intact – at least in state waters.