There's less at stake in a war of nerves over oil off Santa Barbara than the one in the Persian Gulf, but the intensity of mistrust makes that hard to tell.
Chevron Corp. discovered oil some years ago off Point Arguello, built $2.5-billion worth of offshore production facilities and then fell to feuding with Santa Barbara about how to get the oil to refineries and to market.
Chevron wanted to put the raw oil ashore by pipeline at Gaviota, just up the coast from Santa Barbara, take out the water, sulfur and dirt, and then ship it to its Los Angeles refineries by tanker.
Santa Barbara County, which had one nasty experience with an offshore oil blowout in 1969, wanted as little as possible to do with tankers and the higher risk they pose of spills. The county told Chevron to get as much as possible of its oil from Gaviota to Los Angeles with an existing pipeline and send the rest by tanker. Claiming the pipeline would add $2 to the cost of getting a barrel of oil to market, Chevron refused.
That was six years ago and Chevron has yet to pump a barrel of oil. During all that time, the California Coastal Commission has consistently backed up the Santa Barbara County policy.
Six years is a long time for this dispute to have dragged on, particularly when the issue is over a few dollars a barrel at a time when oil is bringing crisis-high profits. Los Angeles is not directly involved in what appears to be a Chevron campaign to wear down Santa Barbara's distaste for tankers, but Los Angeles certainly doesn't need any more hydrocarbons drifting in from offshore tanker terminals to help brew up smog.
Chevron should stop struggling against what seems to us a perfectly reasonable policy and get behind a pipeline project that has already passed its feasibility phase. The pipeline would be built by Southern Pacific along its right-of-way to Los Angeles. By one account, the pipeline could carry everything likely to be produced off Point Arguello for just slightly more than tankers and perhaps even for precisely the same. When the Mideast crisis sent oil prices skyrocketing, Chevron announced it would start up its operation off Point Arguello, still planning to get its product to refineries by tanker. Energy Department Mediators flew to California to break the deadlock. Nobody budged.
Recently Chevron thought it had a better idea. It would lease space in existing pipelines and move its oil from Gaviota north to a Unocal Corp. facility in Avila Beach. But so thick are the clouds of mistrust by now that Santa Barbara officials smell a game of cat-and-mouse. Could Chevron be planning an end run, taking its oil out of Avila Beach by tanker and moving it to Los Angeles? Both Chevron and Unocal say no.
Surely it will dawn on Chevron some day that the longer it delays on using a pipeline, the longer it will take to get its Point Arguello oil to its service stations. Why not arrange to have the dawn break tomorrow?