Debating 'Drill, Baby, Drill' At Site Of '69 Spill

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Platform Gail. i

Platform Gail, off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., delivers about 5,000 barrels of oil each day. Carrie Kahn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carrie Kahn/NPR
Platform Gail.

Platform Gail, off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., delivers about 5,000 barrels of oil each day.

Carrie Kahn/NPR
Sea lions on an oil platform. i

Sea lions stacked on the bottom stairs of the platform, which serves as an artifical reef and attracts an abundance of fish. Carrie Kahn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carrie Kahn/NPR
Sea lions on an oil platform.

Sea lions stacked on the bottom stairs of the platform, which serves as an artifical reef and attracts an abundance of fish.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

Presidential campaigns come and go, but John McCain's camp has proliferated a slogan that could live on well past the election: "Drill, baby, drill," the battle cry for those who believe the U.S. should be drilling for more of its oil offshore.

Since 1969, when a devastating oil spill occurred off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., there has been a federal ban on new offshore rigs in American waters. But now that the ban has been lifted, some attitudes are changing, even near the site of the spill.

A few hours before sunrise, it's easy to spot the brightly lit oil platforms across the dark horizon: Platform Grace and Platform Gail, which is 21 miles from the Venoco Corporation's private pier in southern Santa Barbara County.

Venoco bought Platform Gail from Chevron nearly 10 years ago, and it delivers about 5,000 barrels of oil each day.

The control room, which is where every well, pressure gauge and alarm system is monitored, is the heart of the platform's operations. Mike Edwards, Venoco's vice president, says the technology has vastly improved since a nearby oil rig blew out in 1969.

Today, Edwards says Venoco must comply with tough regulations that didn't exist 40 years ago. Down at sea level, near dozens of sea lions lounging on the platform's stairs and catwalks, there are 23 drill pipes plunging into the water. They are drilled thousands of feet into the ocean floor and reinforced with steel and concrete, which Edwards says is a big change from the days of the Santa Barbara oil spill.

"There has probably been a thousand wells drilled offshore California since then, and there has been no repeat of that 1969 incident," Edwards says.

Citing that safety record and California's sagging economy, Brooks Firestone, an elected Santa Barbara supervisor, says it's time to allow more offshore drilling in the state. Firestone authored a letter on behalf of the county to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger urging him to drop a state ban on further drilling.

"There is a great deal of wealth in the natural resource of oil," Firestone says. "Why should this be for the benefit of Dubai and Saudi Arabia?"

The letter represents a major political sea change in Santa Barbara.

But opposition is still strong and active in people like Abe Powell, who remembers the spill,

"The whole beach was black, was completely covered with oil and tar and dead animals," says Powell, who heads Get Oil Out, or GOO, a group against oil drilling. He says that while California oil won't put a dent in prices at the pump, it will jeopardize the local tourism industry.

"When you threaten [the tourism industry], you threaten the commerce of this region in a much more significant way than any potential small benefit from oil development would present," he says.

Powell also disputes the oil industry's safety record. He says that while offshore spills may have been minimal, the industry has been responsible for a significant amount of onshore pollution.

But in the galley on Platform Gail, Joe Sparano, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, says many environmentalists are living in the past at a time when the country needs every drop of oil it can get.

"Using our own domestic resources is perhaps a better idea than importing so much every day," he says.

But Sparano acknowledges that with oil prices dropping, public support for offshore drilling may wane. And if Democrats control both the White House and Congress after November's election, the federal ban on offshore drilling could make a comeback.

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