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GEORGE SKELTON / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Allow offshore drilling

August 18, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Admittedly I'm biased on offshore drilling. I was born in Santa Barbara, grew up in Ojai and spent many a weekend on the beach.

But that didn't make me an anti-drilling fanatic. Hardly.

I was around lots of oil rigs -- onshore, offshore and some near the beach.

On some beaches around Santa Barbara, you could feel the oozing tar between your toes -- and that was long before a Union Oil platform five miles offshore spilled crud all over 20 miles of coast in 1969. For centuries, the tar naturally had seeped up through the sand, providing the native Chumash with caulking for their canoes.

Oh, another thing: My dad was an oil field roustabout, or driller or whatever job he could fill on a given shift. So were his dad, brother and cousins. They left their Tennessee farms and followed the migration to California for the 1920s oil boom.

My first summer job out of high school was in a Ventura oil field, an experience guaranteed to prod a kid into college if nothing else would. (But the oil job paid better than newspaper work, I soon discovered.)

So "Big Oil" never has been a big bugaboo for me. It was the producer of a vital commodity and provider of working-class jobs. Although oil derricks annoy many people as unsightly, I've always marveled at how they work, especially all lighted up at night.

Like a lot of Californians, however, when the drilling platform fouled our beaches, I became a NIMBY. Get those leaking monstrosities out of our waters. No more drilling. And enough people felt the same that California's coast became off-limits to any additional oil exploration.

That was nearly 40 years ago.

At that point, America was importing only 24% of its oil. Today, it's up to nearly 70% and rising, a ludicrous transfer of American wealth.

Back then, we hadn't yet fought any Middle East wars with one eye on oil pipelines.

And nobody dreamed of $4 gas.

California is the nation's biggest consumer of gasoline -- 45 million gallons a day, plus 10 million gallons of diesel. That makes us the third-biggest petroleum-consuming entity in the world, behind only the United States and China.

We are the nation's No. 3 oil-producing state, behind Texas and Alaska.

But California produces only 39% of the crude oil it uses. An additional 16% comes from Alaska and the remaining 45% is bought from foreign sources, according to the California Energy Commission.

So there's a gusher of hypocrisy here: The state that is the biggest consumer of gasoline in the nation -- but produces less than 40% of what it uses -- is opposed to drilling for more oil off its shores. We're slackers not pulling our weight.

The continental shelf off California contains an estimated 10 billion barrels of crude oil, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service.

Offshore exploration opponents point out that if the federal drilling ban were lifted today, there'd be no immediate effect on gasoline prices. It could take 10 years to get any crude to the gas pump. Fine. Most people driving today still will be 10 years from now.

Anyway, the important thing is to produce the fuel ourselves, not be shaping our foreign policy to assure a steady supply from shifty overseas sellers.

It's time to let go of the past -- the past 40 years -- and allow some offshore drilling. It's about the principle as much as the production. And it also could be about principal: California's governor could follow the example of Louisiana's and demand state royalties for drilling in federal waters.

Environmentally, drilling is much safer than in 1969. There are new technologies.

The rigs are ugly? They mar the sunset? That's an elitist attitude we no longer can afford.

And apparently increasing numbers of Californians agree.

A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 51% of voters favor more offshore drilling; 45% are opposed. Pollster Mark Baldassare says his past surveys always have found more people opposed than in favor.

Nationally, a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll showed that 69% of Americans want more offshore drilling.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco obviously has been reading the polls and hearing from other Democratic members of Congress. Last week, Pelosi said she was considering legislation to permit new offshore drilling -- except possibly on the West Coast -- as part of a broad, long-overdue bill that invests in alternative energy.

That brings up another argument for not lifting the drilling ban: Pumping more oil will just feed our addiction to the fossil fuel that is burning up the planet. We ought to be focusing on renewable energy -- wind, solar, geothermal.

"We should be moving toward renewable sources that are free, American and inexhaustible," says Alan Salzman, founder of VantagePoint Venture Partners, a huge Silicon Valley investor in clean tech.

"I can't say it's the end of civilization as we know it if we drill offshore. But we're missing the point. That's looking backward. Why live in the past, burning fossil fuels and living off dead dinosaurs? We don't need to do that. We have been endowed with phenomenal resources. All we have to do is scoop them up."

He adds, "The car industry is going to switch over to electric, and that's a certainty. Hundreds of thousands of electric cars will be on the road in 2011."

Let me know when one is affordable, practical and in the showroom.

People didn't give up their horse and buggy until Henry Ford began making affordable cars. We're anxiously awaiting our next transportation mode. Meanwhile, we'll need to keep pumping gas -- some of it from the Santa Barbara Channel.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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