Saturday, March 17 , 2018, 8:58 pm | Fair 51º


Community Environmental Council at Forefront of Sustainability


Catalyst for change promotes a Santa Barbara County that is Fossil Free by '33.



The 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel may have been an absolute disaster, but it spawned a movement that has changed the world. Perhaps no organization has been as much a catalyst for that evolution than Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council.

From its inception, CEC founders, including Paul Relis and Selma Rubin, saw their nonprofit organization’s role as creating consensus rather than confrontation, of finding a way to inform and educate about the need to live in greater harmony with the environment.

The CEC began its new role with a bang, organizing a 1970 Earth Day celebration in Santa Barbara that joined with millions nationwide to recognize that society’s careless ways must change. It organized community gardens, experimented with organic farming, and adapted sources of renewable energy in the form of solar power and biofuels.

The CEC opened it first recycling center in Santa Barbara in 1975, the first nonprofit recycling center in California. For Santa Barbara County residents, recycling is now a habit and the directives of local governments and area sanitation businesses. Too, the CEC has made successful forays to stop the over-commercialization of the Santa Barbara waterfront, and can claim some of the credit for the harmonious look of the East Beach area.

But by 2003, the CEC’s board of directors had a sense that the group’s efforts needed a new direction, and the organization set about identifying areas in which CEC leadership might have the most profound and beneficial change locally.

Led by Relis and directors Jon Clark and Mike Noling, among others, the board concluded that the most critical future environmental challenge involved energy, and how it is created, acquired and expended. The new focus has led to a number of changes, including the selling of real property, and letting others promote and expand recycling efforts.

Nor did the board executive committee shy away from a change in leadership, hiring Dave Davis as its new CEO and executive director.  Davis, who distinguished himself as the city of Santa Barbara’s community development director, brought his broad experience in planning and environmental issues, as well as a quick intelligence capable of leading change from within.

Under Davis and assistant director Sigrid Wright, the CEC has established several ambitious goals for the county. To obtain the best information and guidance, the CEC held an energy summit and learned from 20 different energy experts and organizations from UCSB, Santa Barbara City College and across the nation.  With technical expertise and knowledge provided by Tam Hunt, CEC energy program director, Hunt and Wright co-authored “A New Energy Direction: a Blueprint for Santa Barbara County.”

The key element in the blueprint’s design is the CEC’s program to have the county Fossil Free by ‘33 (2033). This call to action presents county leadership and residents with both a challenge and an opportunity.  The central tenet of Fossil Free is that fossil fuels are increasingly expensive, generally harmful to the environment, finite, and that our dependence on them as an energy source leaves the nation dependent on uncertain supplies outside of our borders. How do we wean ourselves from them?  The CEC believes the solution will be found in greater efficiency in all forms of energy use, and developing renewable sources of energy that are available locally —  primarily wind, ocean and solar.

In Santa Barbara County, about half of all energy is consumed as gasoline. Here the CEC is promoting greater citizen awareness of the problems with fossil fuels, and developing solutions such as educating the public to buy fuel-efficient cars, using alternative transportation, ride sharing and combining trips to reduce consumption.

The other major area for energy savings can be found in the 37 percent consumed by all things related to buildings:  their construction, maintenance and operation.  Efficiencies in design will reduce consumption as will the evolution of all mechanical/electrical systems within the building.

Davis and the CEC team feel a sense of urgency about fossil fuels, because of the damage the energy source does to the environment, as well as the fact that, as a finite resource, the cost will only rise.  And when oil production reaches its inevitable maximum, demand will drive the price higher and higher and the world may lurch toward calamity. Those most affected by this rise in fossil fuel prices will be those who cannot buy their way out of an energy shortage.

One of the impressive things about the CEC’s New Energy Direction is the realization that the economics of energy use will determine future strategies to get and maintain reliable sources.  That is, new strategies to solve problems of cost and availability will have success or failure depending on the underlying economics of these future plans. If they do not make sense economically, they will not happen.  To this end, the CEC has taken a detailed look into future prospects for fossil fuels if a “business as usual” approach is maintained, and compared those costs with those projected for renewable sources of energy.

The CEC makes a convincing case that fuel costs will continue to rise, with too much demand chasing too little supply, and the costs of renewable energy will drop. If it plays out that way, it will be a rather serendipitous thing for the human race, as renewable sources will offer environmental benefits, international trade balances, and protection from manipulation by oil-producing countries.  Certainly the CEC makes a convincing case for a determined effort on the part of Santa Barbara County to look for alternative sources.  The plausibility of the CEC scenario gives one a certain assurance that the future is still ours to control.

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