Forty years after a destructive oil spill, Santa Barbara County shores may open to new offshore drilling sites.

The U.S. Dept. of the Interior, fol¬lowing former President Bush’s lift of the executive ban on offshore oil and gas exploration in 2008, is looking into leas¬ing newly available areas in federal waters along the Outer Continental Shelf. The Minerals Management Service, a divi¬sion of the Dept. of the Interior, has introduced 31 new OCS sites that include 130 million acres along the California coastline, encompassing the Santa Maria Basin and the Santa Barbara channel.

President Bush lifted the executive ban amid rising gas prices and chants of “drill, baby, drill” at the Republican Convention. The moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration had lasted for almost 20 years when the first President Bush put it into place in 1990.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors sent shockwaves across the nation when they voted 3-2 in favor of expanding offshore drilling along the coast in August 2008. While this vote was largely a symbolic act, it demon¬strated a clear reversal of Santa Barbara’s long-held opposition toward the con¬troversial topic. The board of supervi¬sors, however, reversed its stance toward offshore drilling just eight months later once 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr was elected. The board then voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution that stood against offshore drilling in federal waters.

Santa Barbara has often been referred to as the birthplace of the modern environmental movement after suffer¬ing a devastating oil spill in 1969, in which more than three million gallons of oil coated 35 miles of beach. President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency soon after personally touring the environmentally devastated beaches.

Thirty-fifth Assembly District can¬didate Susan Jordan said that the board’s initial decision to support offshore drill¬ing made a large impact on the national level.

“I think that part of the problem about the discourse at the federal level is that there has been some confusion about where Santa Barbara stands,” Jordan said. “It was imperative for the board of super¬visors to send Washington a clear mes¬sage that they do not support [offshore drilling].”

Despite the board’s most recent state¬ment against drilling, proponents such as 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray say that new technology offers a secure way to mine the wealth off Santa Barbara’s coast.

“I am absolutely positive we should open offshore drilling,” Gray said. “We need the resources, and we need to cut back on U.S. dependency on foreign gas and oil. Technology in 2009 is capable of providing a very safe drilling and produc¬tion environment.”

However, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said that Santa Barbara County has made it clear that, “Our coastline is not for sale.”

“I don’t think it’s prudent or wise to expand federal leases,” Carbajal said. “It doesn’t make sense environmentally or economically. I think that the [Dept. of the Interior] sees how strongly California feels about this.”

The OCS Lands Act requires the Dept. of the Interior to assemble a five-year program outlining the details of the proposed leasing areas. Despite a current 2007-12 plan already in action, former President Bush issued a new 2010-15 plan on his last day in office.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar issued a statement shortly after the Obama administration took office.

“It was a headlong rush of the worst kind,” Salazar wrote. “It was a process rigged to force hurried decisions based on bad information. It was a process tilted toward the usual energy players while renewable energy companies and the interests of American consumers and taxpayers were overlooked.”

In response to the Bush administra¬tion’s “midnight action,” Salazar extend¬ed the public commentary period to 180 days. The period ends next week on Sept. 21.

Salazar also held four regional meet¬ings around the country to discuss the five-year plan, assembled new informa¬tion on the proposed leasing sites and gathered more information on developing renewable energy.

If the Dept. of the Interior decides to proceed with the five-year plan, it is expected to take effect in 2010. However, once a lease is rewarded, it takes five or 10 years before production actually com¬mences.

According to the MMS Web site, 43 million OCS acres account for 15 percent of America’s natural gas production and 27 percent of America’s domestic oil pro¬duction.

Based on 2006 MMS estimates, there are 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 tril¬lion cubic feet of gas within the “undis¬covered fields on the OCS.” These quan¬tities represent approximately 60 percent of the oil and 40 percent of the natural gas resources that remain within the untouched areas in the United States.

Proponents maintain that drilling would bring in much-needed revenue for the county, reduce rising gas prices and diminish dependence on foreign oil. The United States currently imports 58 percent of its oil, which is why the MMS maintains that new oil and gas explora¬tion sites are necessary.

“In fact, oil and natural gas are expect¬ed to remain, by far, our primary sources of energy for decades to come, even with aggressive efforts and government policies to encourage the development of alternative fuels, more efficient engines and increasingly effective conservation measures,” the MMS stated on its Web site.

Fourth-year environmental studies major Monica Noeng said that the Santa Barbara community should continue to voice its stance against more offshore drilling.

“Santa Barbara and UCSB are known for our environmentalism, we can’t let more oil drilling happen here,” Noeng said. “No matter how much we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, [the Dept. of the Interior] is just making up excuses. Once that platform opens up, there are just going to be more and more.”

Additionally, Jordan said she believes that the newest technology is not risk-proof. She cited the recent example of environmental destruction along the Australian coast in which more than 1,200 tons of oil has seeped into the ocean from an oil rig.

“With the devastation in Australia, interestingly enough, the latest technol¬ogy was put into action there only a year and a half ago,” Jordan said. “That’s why we are saying any new offshore drill¬ing carries the risk of spills and damage to the economy and the environment. Offshore drilling is far from ever being risk-proof. It always comes down to peo¬ple cleaning things up.”