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Noozhawk Talks: Lad Handelman Dives Right in to Life and Its Challenges

Renowned deep-sea diver and entrepreneur takes up a new passion to Stop Oil Seeps

A 1985 skiing accident left SOS California co-founder Lad Handelman without the use of his body from his chest down, but he didn’t let it stop him. He founded the nonprofit Outlook support group for people with spinal injuries, of which he has presided over meetings for the past two-and-a-half decades, and now he’s working to convince environmentalists of the benefits of energy drilling.
A 1985 skiing accident left SOS California co-founder Lad Handelman without the use of his body from his chest down, but he didn’t let it stop him. He founded the nonprofit Outlook support group for people with spinal injuries, of which he has presided over meetings for the past two-and-a-half decades, and now he’s working to convince environmentalists of the benefits of energy drilling.  (Elite Henenson / Noozhawk photo)

By Leslie Dinaberg, Noozhawk Contributor |

Attempting to bridge the gap between environmentalists and the oil industry may seem like a pipe dream, but SOS California co-founder Lad Handelman knows something about beating the odds. Overcoming a tough childhood in the Bronx, where he was a member of the Red Devils gang, Handelman became a successful commercial diver and founded two companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Cal Dive International and Oceaneering International.

Then when a 1985 skiing accident left him without the use of his body from his chest down, Handelman refused to waste even a day of his life feeling depressed. Instead, he started the nonprofit Outlook support group for people with spinal injuries, and has presided over meetings for the past two-and-a-half decades.

Handelman recently talked to Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg about life in Santa Barbara and his latest passion: working to convince environmentalists that energy drilling is actually a good thing, and will improve the quality of our ocean.

Leslie Dinaberg: The timing of this interview is interesting because we’ve been trying to get together for a while and now with President Barack Obama’s announcement about offshore drilling it’s much more topical than it was a few weeks ago. Tell us about SOS California and how that relates to what he is doing?

Lad Handelman: SOS California — the SOS stands for Stop Oil Seeps and Save Our State — is an educational nonprofit organization that is trying to help the public, our legislators and other officials understand that it is possible to decrease ocean and air pollution, generate billions of dollars of new revenues in the process and, as a bonus, to greatly decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil. That sounds like a lot and that achieving this would be impossible; that’s what we have all been taught. But that’s not the way it has to be.

LD: And you and Bruce Allen started this group in 2004-2005.

LH: I’m not the scientific guy, Bruce Allen is, but I have the background and experience on the subject (of oil drilling). It so happened that the local newspapers and political campaign fliers were drowning us with claims that Big Oil was the cause of oily beaches, air pollution and seabirds’ suffering. Political platforms all promised to ban drilling forever.

Given my background as a lifetime underwater fisherman and offshore construction diver, I knew that this was incorrect. Santa Barbara needed to know that this finger-pointing was at the wrong culprit. The real culprits were Santa Barbara’s massive natural seeps pouring oil and methane gas out from ocean floor cracks — more than 2,000 of such seeps from Point Conception down to Rincon. Check this out by reviewing the Santa Barbara County Energy Division’s Natural Seeps Report from 2002. Each and every day, besides the methane and other noxious gases, more than 10,000 gallons of oil rises into the water column, a lot of it onto our coastal beaches. According to the county Air Pollution Control District, if one searches out the inventory section, the amount of methane and noxious gases contaminating our atmosphere each day from natural seep scent is more than from all the road vehicles and passing ships combined. Amazing. I knew about all of this because I was intimately involved with what went on under and above the ocean, and how tightly regulated the oil industry was. Once Bruce did his own independent scrutinizing and saw this same picture I did, he jumped in with both feet.

LD: Had you worked with Bruce previously?

LH: No, Bruce was just a darn good friend who I respected highly for the scientific no-nonsense approach he was known for in his professional life as a physicist in the military’s intercontinental ballistic missile program.

LD: I looked at the Web site and I saw the fact sheet but I didn’t see the backup research that goes with the fact sheet. Is there some neutral place that people can go to get this information?

LH: Absolutely. The California State Lands Commission, the county Energy Division, Minerals Management Service, National Academy of Sciences, to name a few. Much of their findings and reports are referenced on SOS California’s site. By tabbing onto Presentations, you will find on page 23, a PowerPoint in which you will see many amazing statistics, which will surprise you. For example, from 1970 to today, more than 2 million barrels of oil have been released from natural seeps and only 842 barrels came from offshore platforms. Also, UCSB’s 20-year study demonstrates that our coastline’s most massive seeps, pouring out right off Coal Oil Point, have been more than cut in half. This is attributed to the reduction of reservoir pressures due to the extraction of the underlying oil and gas. But forget the science — those of us who have lived here since the 1970s can’t possibly deny that we can now walk our beaches with cleaner feet and happier nostrils. That is what this extraction has done for us.

LD: Does it feel like the idea has gained credibility over the last five years?

LH: Absolutely. Not only throughout this county but recently SOS has been asked twice to make presentations to Washington, D.C.’s congressional groups and just last week to a senatorial group at the state Capitol. We can’t count how many times we have been told, “We never knew about natural seep pollution; we never imagined the extent of the revenues available from utilizing these resources.”

LD: You’ve made presentations to the Heritage Foundation; state Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark; and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, and it sounds like a lot of conservative-leaning groups are receptive. What about the environmental groups?

LH: We never expected any of the anti-oil organizations to be receptive. And they are not. However, many individuals from their membership ranks, on their own, have came to me for more information and have expressed their “misgivings” about what they have been told by their leaderships. Many of these individuals are quite confused about why their head people who, after decades of preaching that all drilling is dangerous and messy, suddenly reversed themselves in supporting the infamous Tranquillon Ridge-PXP project. What confuses these individuals is that if indeed drilling is truly so dangerous, how can their leadership now have chosen to support drilling at all? Even for a single day? Let alone for 14 years? I agree with their concern and understand their worry that perhaps their leaderships have played a terrible hoax on them all these years.

LD: Interesting. Well, you’ve got the environmental issue but there’s a huge potential financial component that I think sometimes makes people suspicious.

LH: The financial component available from offshore development really is incredibly huge. Santa Barbara’s foremost economist, Mark Schneipp, conducted an unchallenged and thorough analysis of this potential. His in-depth analysis demonstrates that even from a conservative amount of offshore development, Santa Barbara County would receive a windfall for more than 20 years of $350 million per year. This is no misprint. This staggering amount of new revenues would be paid to the county by the oil companies in the form of property taxes on the offshore leases and production royalties. Some politicians don’t seem to understand that this resource does not belong to them; it is we, the people, who own these resources. And in these times of debilitating state and county financial crisis, I find it unconscionable that these politicians continue to block us from benefiting from this, our own resource. Just think, at no risk to anyone and no cost to anyone, if Santa Barbara just said “yes,” the energy industry could begin right now harvesting this untapped resource. This whole thing is nuts.

LD: The risk and the cost are what are in question from some people, not the potential money to be made from oil. Speaking of which, you have received grants from Venoco?

LH: Yes. SOS’ involvement with Venoco is not any secret. For two years running, SOS applied for one of Venoco’s more than 100 annual grants, which are awarded to selected nonprofit organizations such as ours. Last year, 162 regional nonprofits were selected and received Venoco grants and SOS is proud to say that along with the Boys & Girls Clubs, Santa Barbara City College and a host of other organizations, we were also selected. As for the three years before that, SOS never asked any oil company for any support simply because we didn’t want to have anyone be able to claim that we were in any way influenced by any outsiders at all. Then and now, SOS keeps itself entirely independent from third-party influence and calls its own shots.

LD: Is the ultimate goal of SOS to bring around the public or bring around the thought leaders?

LH: SOS itself cannot bring anyone around. Our ultimate goal is to effectively educate, to provide timely and factual information and accurate historical statistics so those who wish to review the information can make their own judgments. Now that SOS has a Web site and is posted on YouTube and Facebook, if enough everyday citizens decide they want change and are willing to say so loud enough via this new platform, legislators will have no choice but to listen, and then policy changes are possible. For once, the everyday person and family will be given a choice, a voice, and the opportunity to make a difference.

LD: OK. I’m going to switch tracks. How did you go from being a New York City boy to the diving industry?

LH: I was born in the Bronx and grew up in a spot called Mount Vernon. I never liked school. I was the only Polack in an Italian gang called the Red Devils. Wearing a big steel ring on our middle fingers and steel-toed engineer’s boots, we never lost a rumble. More and more of my paisanos were getting carted out of town to their new homes up the river where they would be spending a year or two. I reckoned I was next, so I headed west as far away as I could get, to California. I picked oranges, I tried selling magazines, and tried being a line tender for my Uncle Jimmy on an abalone boat. My job was to cut kelp and pull up bags of abalones that their divers picked. It didn’t take Uncle Jimmy long to see I was of no use to him. I failed at all these early efforts but for a 16-year-old kid it was all an adventure. I suppose because I grew up with no adult supervision or controls, it is no wonder I could not handle taking orders from anyone. So I borrowed a 16-foot long rowboat with a small motor, rigged up a garden hose to a facemask, and now I was the diver, I was the boss. I was a terrible diver but at least I couldn’t be fired. Ultimately I did learn. And now I live on top of TV Hill.

On and off since the ‘60s.

LD: What do you and Linda like to do for fun?

LH: Aside from watching our poppies grow and our wonderful American flag fly, we enjoy going to the (Santa Barbara) Breakers and (UCSB) Gauchos basketball games and that kind of stuff. And we like to eat salmon at the Fish House. We especially enjoy having our home used to raise money for great causes like the United Boys & Girls Clubs and on each Fourth of July, to be able to have our very special friends join us when we blow locomotive horns and raise our new flag to let the world know that we are very grateful for our free way of life and all that the flag stands for. I wish more of us celebrated this day in this spirit.

LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?

LH: Persevering, tenacious and quite good at saying, “I don’t know” or “Boy, I really screwed up this time.” I’ve had lots of practice!

LD: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that I should have?

LH: You didn’t ask me about my kids. I have three beautiful grown kids, Laurie, Roy and Jim. Fortunately, none of them take after me. I love them unconditionally. I wish I saw more of them. You also didn’t ask me about my experience with breaking my neck.

LD: I know you founded the Outlook Support Group for people with spinal injuries. Is everyone else in the group as upbeat as you are?

LH: People in wheelchairs are amazingly upbeat. I have found real heroes. I used to think that gang members and divers were tough. I’ve learned now what being tough really means. I cannot tell you how much I learn and am inspired through knowing these heroes.

Vital Stats: Lad Handelman

Born: Aug. 1 in The Bronx, New York.

Family: “At home with me is my incredible life partner, Linda; little Blossom, our Shih Tzu; and Lady, our cat. There is also my lifelong friend and everyday work partner, Patti Putnam, who tries to keep me out of trouble.”

Civic Involvement: SOS California; United Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara County; SBCC Marine Diving Technology Program; Historical Diving Society; Ocean Energy Institute; Outlook Group for wheelchair-bound people.

Professional Accomplishments: Founder of Cal Dive International and Oceaneering International, both listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Minor partner in Peter Howorth’s Marine Mammal Consulting Group and co-founder of SOS California.

Favorite Local Spot: “Sitting out underneath our flag or going out to Joe’s Cafe, Harry’s Plaza Cafe and the Fish House.”

Little-Known Fact: “I’m learning how to do iTunes and now I have my choice of my favorite music around the house.”

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

comments powered by Disqus

» on 04.26.10 @ 02:40 PM

A fascinating gent.

Interested citizens should ask to see the SOS film, “A Crude Reality.”

It provides an even-handed look at the oil seep issue off our beautiful South Coast.

» on 04.26.10 @ 08:17 PM

Great story and a wonderful person.  It’s too bad that so many of our environmental “activists” won’t even open up their minds to these facts on pollution to our beaches and our air.  I wish we could show the film “Crude Reality” in Carpinteria and let it be a start for this state to follow it’s lead.  Our state is broke, but Carpinterians want to say “Save Our Town”! 
Congratulations to Lad and Bruce for taking a such a sound and common sense approach to saving our shores and our state.  People, please listen with an open mind!

» on 04.27.10 @ 11:12 AM

So much for the SOS narrative: 42,000 gallons of oil leaked daily in the gulf. A slick 180 miles long heading to the coast. Transocean (RIG) pushed and successfully fought off new safety rules. GREED is GOOD??? Can you imagine this happening here?

» on 04.27.10 @ 05:34 PM

Oooooh, ok local when I see you walking in your snake skin shoes everywhere you go and living in an animal skin tee pee eating food grown by your own sweat then I’ll give you some credence otherwise you are just another blinded hypocrite.
Everything you do is power by petroleum and no amount of fancy ignoramus fueled dreaminess is going to change that. Yes we could be more like China and make up for that lack of energy by demanding human labor. But then I wonder how many of you soft, flabby get- my exercise-in-a-petroleum-powered-gym pantywaists would survive in that environment? Think about that mister oh so environmentally sensitive Local. How long would you last under your own power? How long would you last without our petroleum powered civilization? I give you five days. That’s how long a human can survive without water and without petroleum we have no water and no way to get to where it is.

» on 04.27.10 @ 05:37 PM

The biggest environmental benefit the Santa Barbara coast has ever seen is the reduction in the 80,000 barrels per year of natural oil seepage due to offshore oil production, and reduced seep gas emissions. Why is it so hard for pseudo- environmentalists to admit that? A spill is very brief. Our beaches will be cleaner for over the next 10,000 years because of offshore production. Offshore production made possible because of people like Lad Handelman.  Want proof of the offshore environmental benefits?  How about a UCSB Press Release!
Or is UCSB an oil stooge too?
The SB offshore oil seeps have killed far more wildlife in the last 50 years than all offshore CA oil production spills combined, including 1969. So why no outrage about the seeps killing wildlife?  Because its phony outrage about offshore oil. We now know that our beaches are cleaner forever because of CA offshore production drying up the seep oil and cleaning up our air from seep gases. Next time you walk on a SB beach, your feet will be cleaner because of offshore production. And the pseudo-environmentalists don’t even say “thank you”!

» on 04.27.10 @ 09:40 PM

Sadly, SB Common Sense continues to refer to the same study. I have never disagreed that some oil drilling has reduced natural seepage. The point I am trying to make by siting the recent massive spill in the Gulf is your claim time and time again how much safer things are today and the risk a so minimal. At 42,000 gallons per day it will not take long to make up for years of natural seepage reduction and it is much more concentrated. Do you understand now or is it just you are bought and paid for by Venaco and do not have the capacity to have a balanced approach to this issue?

As for AN50, you always leap to these insane extremes without actually addressing the issue. I have never come out against oil production in a coherent way. Of course, you have to take your usual condensing approach to every argument. You must have some kind of inferiority complex or just love to put others down you do not even know. What a sad man you are. The Gulf spill is a fact, now try as you may to deny it. If you read closer regarding the spill you will see there were numerous violations and attempts to circumvent inspections. Sounds very similar to Massey Energy and the coal mining accident. Do you see a partern here? Ultimately, your favorate company Halliburton used a cost saving illegaland unsafe method to cap and drill which resulted in the explosion. Now they are being sued by those families you lost someone. The question is can we trust companies like TransOcean and Halliburton to keep our environment and ocean clean. The answer is clearly NO.

» on 04.27.10 @ 10:33 PM

Local-  If you had walked the beaches of Santa Barbara since the mid-1960’s, you’d know that our beaches have far less seep oil pollution now. That’s not a UCSB study, thats living through a time where we have personally witnessed our beaches becoming cleaner. The UCSB research and other academic studies show that the seep reductions are linked to offshore production. Why not just admit that our beaches are cleaner because of offshore production. Is it so hard to admit? The benefits are permanent-spills are very short term. Why not just admit it? Maybe you haven’t walked the beaches here since the mid-1960’s like many residents have. And give it up- the oil companies aren’t paying residents to say our beaches are cleaner. The “oil companies are behind everything” is lame- true learning a new gimmick.

» on 04.28.10 @ 10:44 AM

I have lived here a long time and walked the beaches in the 60s. Yes the beaches are cleaner and it is due to drilling reducing the seepage. This is no different than the previous statement I made. Now, your comment about a spill being temporary of course avoids the discussion of the intense and massive environmental impact versus slow seepage which is totally different. Please watch and observe and pay attention to the Gulf spill as it moves forward. You may also want to revisit the marine animal and coastline statistics from the SB spill or the Exxon/Valdez spill.

SOS does receive funding and donations from oil companies and other entities that would benefit from increased offshore drilling. Is that true or not? Tell the truth.

» on 04.28.10 @ 01:02 PM

Lad Handelman is an excellent man and role model.  This article was well done and shows why and how well he knows the situation in the channel.  Much of this first-hand info was neither given the light of day or researched in any depth during the critical years after the Big Spill.  Tar on the beach and in the ocean was alleviated after we started pumping, but that fact was never acknowledged publicly.  Lad’s generosity is well-known and his patriotic parties are legendary.  I always loved seeing his flag flying high as I drove home and was honored to sing at one of his parties before I moved from Santa Barbara.  I admire him tremendously.  Great article!

» on 04.28.10 @ 02:07 PM

[Noozhawk’s note: Comment removed at author’s request.]

» on 04.28.10 @ 02:56 PM

Actually Judy you are wrong about where I got my information. It is directly from the litigation document that are filed by the families of the dead workers. It points to numerous safety violations and attempts to circumvent inspection and regulation. As far as the clean-up goes, you are wrong again. They in fact do not have the technology to deal with this. They are tryiing to stop the leak with submersibles but can not. Now they are looking to drill a new well in hopes that will reduce the flow. That will take 3 months. Right now the only solution they have is burning the surface spill and using containment buoys. Not exactly a high technology solution. Finally, I agree that there will be incidents that occur as part of progress but like the Massey Energy evident this one probably would not have happened if rules and regulations were adhered to and the companies involved did not take intentional actions to save costs and not implement the proper safeguards.

» on 04.28.10 @ 03:57 PM

Local, as usual you leap to tears when confronted. You have the power to stop Halliburton and “big oil” any time you want. You have the power to keep the environment clean. And you know what? It takes NO regulation what so ever. All you and all the other environmental hypocrites need to do is STOP USING OIL! That was the point I tried to get across to your hypocrite shallow two faced logic brain. You and every other liberal/progressive/environmental phony squawking about these bad companies are the problem. It is your consumption of food, shelter and goods that requires oil to be drilled, pumped refined and shipped. STOP USING IT and ALL your environmental problems will go away.

Ok, now that you see the real problem, which is you don’t like dirty stuff, but everything you do requires it, we can have a rational discussion. The man this article was about has a solution to a bad problem here and you point to a problem 2500 miles away. Lad knows we need oil so rather than bite the hand that feeds us he has a solution that works for everyone. Unfortunately that solution does not fit your desire to divorce yourself from dirt. Our petroleum civilization is fueled by dirty stuff and 4 billion human beings are now alive because of it. When you do the real math and find out you will starve to death without oil then maybe you will stop this insane suicidal campaign of obstructionism.

Look, Local, we are all for a clean planet, whatever that means (believe me I have worked in some pretty foul places and they were all natural), but cutting off your nose to spite your face is stupid and quite frankly there are those of us who care about humanity enough to say killing it is not the answer. If you don’t like the damned condescension on my part then stop writing stupid partisan based comments that are nothing more than regurgitated crap that is 40 years old now. We have had this discussion before.

» on 04.28.10 @ 08:07 PM

there is absolutely nothing “scientific” or “fact-based” about the SOS organization, just a bunch of industry shills.

» on 04.28.10 @ 11:20 PM

Noozdove- SOS seems to be a true grass roots local organization. I think you may be thinking of the EDC and other “enviro” organizations that did the secret $100,000 deal with the oil folks to support the PXP offshore oil project that was leaked to the press a few months ago. As far as “scientific” based evidence, below is a SB News-Press letter to the editor from Prof. James Boles, ex-chairman of the UCSB Earth Sciences Department assuring readers that offshore production in SB does indeed reduce local natural offshore oil pollution- that should be “scientific” enough for you.  So the SB anti-offshore oil crowd has been wrong for 40 years- now they are the “flat-earthers”. Prof. Boles says more offshore production would reduce offshore seepage pollution even more. So next time you all walk on Santa Barbara’s cleaner beaches, think about the pioneers like Lad that are responsible for the technology. And think about it next time you gas up your car too.

Santa Barbara News-Press:Letters: Natural seeps linked to offshore drilling
August 29, 2008 12:00 AM
James Boles, UCSB geology professor (emeritus)

A Tuesday guest commentary by Rep. Pedro Nava argues that there is no relationship between offshore oil production and natural hydrocarbon seepage. I disagree.
My opinion is based on comparing rates of hydrocarbon production at Platform Holly, during a period of relatively constant reservoir pressure, and rates of gas seepage captured in the sea floor tents a mile away between 1982 and 2008 (Department of Energy research at UCSB).
The decline curve in gas production at the platform (about two-fold) is followed by a much greater drop in natural seepage at the tents (about eight-fold). The overall tent seepage rate lags behind the platform decline by about a year.
Furthermore, the shut-off of certain wells at the platform results in an increase in natural seepage at the tent within days of the shutdown. For example, a one-month shutdown of one such well resulted in a 15 percent increase in tent seepage. This relationship occurs multiple times in the record.
Most of the current offshore seepage, judging from published seep maps, occurs out of the reach of existing platform wells. It should be no surprise that rapid production of hydrocarbons at a rate exceeding their natural replacement (the ultimate reason for the looming fossil-fuel problem) will result in a decrease in natural seepage rate.

» on 04.29.10 @ 12:23 PM

SB Common sense, thanks for sharing the engineering data on Holly production and Tent seepage. Most of this data confirms what common sense dictates, that reducing underground pressure through extraction should reduce natural seeps. I don’t know why some in the environmental community find this hard to believe, except that some individuals think no oil should be extracted anywhere for other reasons I suppose.

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