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