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This island SLO 

Partisanship is affecting oil politics in SLO, and it's not in favor of coastal protection

Correction: Andrew Christie mistakenly referred to 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton as being chair of the board in 2017. At the time, 1st District Supervisor John Peschong was chair. Christie mentioned only one letter sent to U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal regarding offshore oil and gas development. The board penned two letters about the issue. One was sent to Carbajal and the other was sent to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. This commentary has been updated to reflect these changes.

"Partisan politics aside," the Sacramento Bee bravely editorialized last month, "no Californian should want to see our coastline put at risk."

As it turns out, Sacramento is a long way from SLO. If you looked us up in a dictionary of California coastal politics right now, our entry would look like this: "SLO County, n. – Central Coast political entity isolated from the mainstream by two conservative supervisors."

The occasion for the Bee's seemingly common-sense observation was the Jan. 4 announcement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the Trump administration is now pursuing a plan to open up 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, including the length of the California coast, for leasing by oil and gas companies. This reversal of longstanding policy formed over decades of bipartisan agreement triggered immediate outrage from residents and elected officials of virtually every affected coastal state—which is to say, those not breathing the air inside the chambers of the SLO County Board of Supervisors.

The Sacramento Bee had not reckoned with the extreme difficulties that three of our supervisors would encounter when asked to consider drafting a resolution affirming the desire of the board to protect our coast from intensified oil and gas drilling, a proposal that was put before them at their Feb. 6 meeting. Supervisor Bruce Gibson (2nd District) made a motion to ask staff to come back with a draft for the board's consideration. Supervisors Debbie Arnold (5th District) and Lynn Compton (4th District) let the motion die for lack of a second.

Compton, per New Times ("Supervisors decline to take stance on offshore drilling," Feb. 8), explained her lack of interest in weighing in on the largest proposed expansion of offshore oil drilling in U.S. history by citing "her vote last February in favor of a letter sent to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke affirming the county's support for Measure A and her vote denying the Phillips 66 rail spur extension."

I'll get to Measure A later. That Feb. 28, 2017, letter from the board was in fact to U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), not Secretary Zinke, expressing the support of the board for Carbajal's bill seeking to ban oil and gas leasing off the coast of California. The board letter to Zinke was sent in March.  Both were political cover for Arnold and Compton's opposition to the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

Arnold's excuse for declining to take a stand, as told to New Times, was this: "[The] ideology of an elected board kind of ebbs and flows, and Measure A levels that out in that if there's ever a proposal for offshore oil leasing in this county, it's got to go through the people to be viable."

This is somehow a reason why SLO County is not joining the hundreds of local governments in the state in going on the record against the Trump/Zinke offshore oil leasing program. And mysteriously, Arnold's ideological logic did not apply when the board sent that Feb. 28 letter to Carbajal in support of his bill. Half of that letter was taken up with extolling the virtues of Measure A, and the other half commended Carbajal for introducing his bill, so apparently we do need something else besides Measure A. Or Compton and Arnold knew we needed it then but have sort of forgotten that we need it even more now.

Measure A is a 30-year-old local ordinance requiring a vote before onshore infrastructure can be built to service offshore oil rigs. The same supervisors also clung to Measure A like a magic talisman when justifying their opposition to the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary one year ago. At that time, Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation, had the following to say about Measure A in the Santa Barbara Independent: "This local ordinance applies only to land and will not and cannot preclude federal offshore leasing along the coast in the manner offered by the Chumash Sanctuary; drilling rigs could still go in and pipelines simply be routed to go ashore to connect with currently operating facilities in Santa Barbara County, thus avoiding any local control over our offshore waters."

Also, in a word: tankers.

It's a shame Compton and Arnold didn't make it to the West Coast premiere of Shore Stories on Feb. 3, hosted by Sierra Club, ECOSLO, Surfrider, and the Coalition to Protect SLO County at French Hospital's Copeland Pavilion. Six short films reduced many in the audience to tears with personal stories of ordinary people forced to live with oil spills, or rising up to block proposed offshore lease sales and protect their communities. The films must be seen to fully grasp the distance between the elected officials they depict going to bat for their constituents in defense of their cities, counties, and states, and Compton's, "I think I'm adequately on record with my position."

The day after Compton and Arnold let Gibson's motion die, the Cambria Pines Lodge, like Sacramento, also proved to be a long way from SLO. At its meeting there that day, the California Coastal Commission agreed unanimously to let the folks at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management know that the Commission was "outraged to learn that BOEM had recklessly threatened the health of California's coastal environment and the future of its multi-trillion dollar economy by proposing to expand drilling off the coast." It urged the administration, "in the strongest possible terms, to remove any proposed OCS [outer continental shelf] oil and gas leasing off the California coast."

Then there's the distance between Rep. Kevin McCarthy and his constituents, who, when they have asked him to oppose the Trump offshore oil plan, have gotten a form letter from their Congressman informing them that he has "long supported an all-of-the-above approach to energy development," he has "noted your comments and will keep them in mind as the 115th Congress continues," and that there will be "significant public comment opportunities" before the plan is put into effect.

So it's kind of tough to get past "Partisan politics aside ..." when the Sacramento Bee makes its plea for coastal protection. It wasn't always this way. As former Monterey Congressman Leon Panetta recently recalled in the LA Times, "Since the 1980s, California congressional representatives of both parties have reflected their constituents' views and united to defend our coast. Unfortunately, at the end of January, when 36 Democratic members of Congress from California signed a letter to Zinke urging him to withdraw his proposal, no Republicans joined the effort."

Hence there will be no way to measure the distance between the SLO supervisors chambers and the county courthouse plaza across the street on Feb. 21, when Congressman Salud Carbajal will be holding a Community Event to Oppose Offshore Oil and remind people to send in their comments to BOEM regarding the offshore leasing program. (Wednesday, Feb. 21, at noon, 1050 Monterey St., SLO.)

We may wish to wax nostalgic on the days when "representatives of both parties have reflected their constituents' views and united to defend our coast," but right now, in an election year, it's important to distinguish the I-gave-at-the-office lip service of the fatally compromised from the actions of those willing to take action. If ever there was a time for this island SLO to send up a flare in hope of rescue and a return to the mainland, it's now. Δ

Andrew Christie is director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments through the editor at [email protected].

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