Since the Earth Day oil rig explosion that killed 11 people and unleashed an unimaginable disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the unacceptable risks of offshore oil drilling have been in the news every day. Politicians, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, are backpedaling from their prior support, based on the horrifying images on the nightly news. Given how close we have come to expanding offshore oil drilling off Santa Barbara (a proposal that now appears almost certainly dead) it’s useful to look back at how that proposal played out. I was the Sierra Club representative in Sacramento dealing with this proposal when it first came to light, so I saw exactly how this unfolded.
When the proposal to drill new wells from Platform Irene was first proposed by PXP, the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) did an impressive job of convincing and cajoling other organizations to support the deal, notwithstanding the fact that all the details were contained in a secret contract between EDC and PXP. Many organizations were willing to follow EDC’s lead, based on its years of impressive environmental work. Given that the details of the deal weren’t available for review, there was a heavy emphasis on “Just trust us.”
The initial push by EDC and PXP to sell the deal came just after Susan Jordan had declared her candidacy for Assembly. As the director of the California Coastal Protection Network and a detail-oriented person, Susan wasn’t going to simply accept someone else’s claim that supporting the first new offshore oil drilling in California in 40 years was a good idea. She dug into the available documents at a far greater level of detail than anyone else had.
What she found is now old news: the deal was not as enforceable as had been claimed (an observation validated by the Attorney General, the State Lands Commission and the Mineral Management Service). And despite the supposed benefit of creating an end-date for oil extraction, the project would significantly increase the risk of an oil spill disaster in the short term.
Let’s be perfectly clear about the risks at the heart of this deal. When you set aside the various bells and whistles of land transfers and carbon offsets and such, at its core the benefit, from PXP’s perspective is, that it could drill more wells now, extract more oil faster, then get out. Drill more, faster, now. But, as the State Lands Commission found when it rejected this proposal last year, drilling more wells to accelerate oil extraction increases the risk of a disaster.
Having established that the proposed deal would increase the risk of an oil spill, and was not as enforceable as claimed, Susan was in a tough spot. She and Linda Krop at the EDC have been friends and colleagues for many years, and opposing the deal was going to be personally difficult. Further, the local politics were such that supporting the deal, or staying silent, would have been the safe thing to do. How Susan handled this situation tells us lots about what kind of leader she will be in Sacramento.
Despite the political risks, and the difficulty of opposing a long-time friend’s proposal, Susan made her decision based on the facts and what was right. She was clear about her position, and explained the facts that led her there. And she stuck with it, even though she paid a heavy political price: Her primary opponent, Das Williams, publicly stated that he jumped into the state Assembly race because of the issue, apparently perceiving an opportunity to exploit divisions in the environmental community.
Much has been said about the PXP/EDC deal over the past couple of years, and it has become a significant election issue. I believe that looking at how Susan handled this exceedingly difficult issue tells us a lot about her commitment to doing what is right, even when it is personally and politically difficult. She demonstrated exactly the combination of guts, integrity and leadership that we need in Sacramento during these difficult times.
The difference between her response to this deal and that of her opponent is the difference between being a leader or a follower. Given the challenges facing California right now, I think we need a leader.
Paul Mason was the deputy director and a lobbyist for Sierra Club California between 2002 and 2009.