MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Nearly four decades ago, a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, turned the country against offshore drilling. It took a huge toll on the environment, and the federal government wound up banning any new offshore drilling in American waters.
BLOCK: And that's the way it remained until this year. The Bush administration lifted the ban as oil prices hit an all-time high. Coordinated cheers of drill, baby, drill have become a regular feature at rallies for the McCain campaign. And even in Santa Barbara, some of the old opposition is fading. That's where we're headed now for a rare tour of an offshore rig that's been operating for decades without a mishap. NPR's Carrie Kahn takes us there.
CARRIE KAHN: It's a few hours before sunrise, but across the dark horizon, it's easy to spot the brightly lit oil platforms.
BLOCK: There's three dots way off in the distance.
KAHN: Mike Edwards, vice president of Venoco, stands on the oil company's private pier in southern Santa Barbara County.
BLOCK: Platform Grace is on the right, and then the next one over is Platform Gail. So, it's kind of the farthest away from here. It's about 21 miles from here.
KAHN: A boat takes us and about a dozen workers out to Gail. Venoco bought the platform nearly 10 years ago from Chevron. It delivers about 5,000 barrels of oil a day.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER ANNOUNCEMENT)
U: Attention on the platform. All personnel leaving this morning, report to the top deck. All personnel leaving this morning, report to the top deck.
KAHN: As the shift changes, Edwards takes me inside to show off the heart of the rig's operations.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
U: Control room. OK.
KAHN: An operator sits in front of multiple computer screens. Edwards says technology has vastly improved since a nearby oil rig blew out in 1969.
BLOCK: We're in the control room, and we're monitoring all the processes and safety alarms on the platform.
KAHN: Every well, pressure gauge and alarm system on the platform is monitored right here. In addition, he says, these rigs must comply with tough regulations that didn't exist 40 years ago. The best place to see that is at sea level.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEA LIONS BARKING)
KAHN: We walk by dozens of sea lions lounging on the platform's bottom stairs and catwalks. Edwards points to one of the 30 steel and cement line drill pipes plunging into the turquoise-blue water. The pipes are drilled thousands of feet into the ocean floor and reinforced with steel and concrete, a big change from the days of the Santa Barbara oil spill.
BLOCK: There's probably been a thousand wells drilled offshore California since then, and there's been no repeat of that 1969 incident.
KAHN: Citing that safety record and the state's sagging economy, Santa Barbara supervisor Brooks Firestone says it's time to allow more offshore drilling here. Firestone authored a letter from the county to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging him to drop a state ban that still exists.
BLOCK: There is a great deal of wealth in the natural resource of oil. Why should this be for the benefit of Dubai and Saudi Arabia?
KAHN: Firestone's letter represents a major political sea change in the county. But there's still plenty of opposition in this town where people vividly remember the devastation of the '69 spill.
BLOCK: The whole beach was black. It was completely covered with oil and tar and dead animals.
KAHN: Abe Powell stands on the Santa Barbara beach nearly destroyed by the '69 spill. He heads the anti-oil drilling group GOO, Get Oil Out. Powell insists California oil won't put a dent in prices at the pump, but will jeopardize the local tourist industry.
BLOCK: When you threaten that, you threaten the commerce of this region in a much more significant way than any potential small benefit from oil development.
KAHN: Powell also disputes the oil industry's safety record. He says while offshore spills may have been minimal, the industry has been responsible for lots of onshore pollution.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING ON LOUD SPEAKER)
KAHN: Back on Oil Platform Gail, Joe Sparano, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, is eating lunch in the galley. He says many environmentalists are living in the past at a time when the country needs every drop of oil it can get.
BLOCK: Using our own domestic resources is perhaps a better idea than importing so much every day.
KAHN: 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, the federal ban on offshore drilling could make a comeback. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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