A divided Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday in support of offshore drilling, after an impassioned daylong hearing in which this year's record gas prices trumped the memory of a disastrous oil spill.
By a 3-2 vote that broke along geographic lines, supervisors agreed to send a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urging him to change state policy and "allow expanded oil exploration and extraction" off the county's coast.
Representatives of the liberal coast lost out to their more conservative inland colleagues in the symbolic action, playing out tensions that have long plagued a region better known for its broad beaches and celebrity residents than its oil and agricultural fields.
"Unless you arrived here on a horse or walked or rode a bicycle, you are part of the oil industry," said Supervisor Joni Gray before voting in favor of the measure. "All we're doing is asking the state to reexamine their stand on abandoning any kind of offshore drilling."
Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) was quick to condemn the vote as "nothing more than vapid political theater," saying in an interview that increased drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel would be like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and "have no effect on gas prices."
Santa Barbara's 1969 oil spill -- in which more than 3 million gallons blackened beaches, killed wildlife and gave birth to the modern environmental movement -- overshadowed the lengthy proceeding.
The supervisors repeatedly prodded speakers about improvements in industry standards, technology and oversight, seeking assurances from oil industry representatives that history would not repeat itself.
John Deacon, a former oil man and senior manager with Tracer Environmental Sciences & Technologies, told the group that "I don't believe a spill of that magnitude could occur."
His words did little to assuage the fears of many in the audience in Santa Maria, where the supervisors met Tuesday.
"I would like to dispel some of the myths set forth in the proposed letter for the governor," said Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center.
"First, oil production is not clean or safe. . . . On a global and national scale, there are too many accidents and incidents to count."
In the end, however, the supervisors' action Tuesday probably will have limited effect. The local body has no power to approve new offshore drilling. Schwarzenegger has already come out against it.