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Forum On Energy Sparks Debate About Big Divide Between Drilling Foes and Supporters

EconAlliance and Santa Barbara Foundation gathering in Buellton leads to lively discussion

2 men participate in panel discussion Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County supervisors Das Williams, left, and Steve Lavagnino discuss the pros and cons of oil and gas drilling on Thursday during a forum sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A forum Thursday afternoon in Buellton highlighted the big divide in Santa Barbara County when it comes to energy, specifically the oil and gas industry as those passionate on both sides spoke out about the benefits of high-paying jobs versus fears of spills and tainted water.

The Santa Barbara Foundation and Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County hosted the forum titled “Energy: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It” at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott.

“This is not without controversy. We know that,” Ron Gallo, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation, said at the start of the event.

During the keynote address, Peter Rupert, UCSB Economic Forecast Project executive director, spelled out the assorted benefits of renewable energy along with the oil and gas industry.

For the oil and gas industry that includes hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars in property tax revenue and more, he contended.

“I’m not saying we should have oil or not have oil, “ Rupert said. “What I’m saying is this will be the benefits. From that comes property taxes. Now we have to weigh the costs, like any good decision maker should do.”

Man holding a microphone Click to view larger
Peter Rupert, UCSB Economic Forecast Project executive director, spelled out the assorted benefits of renewable energy along with the oil and gas industry. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Top property taxpayers in Santa Barbara County several years ago included oil firms with a key share of the funding goes to schools, he said.

“What we should do is we should break this down and say things like, ‘If you don’t want this to be here, how many students are going to be left out? That’s kind of the way you want to think about it.

“No one wants to think about that, by the way,” he added.

The forum included two panel discussions, with one taking the stakeholder perspective and the second centered on regional and state regulators, including county supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino.

Williams said the nation is in a time of transition from the energy source of the past — oil — to the energy sources of the future, such as solar, wind and even natural gas.

“Our future should be in cleaner sources of energy and ones that can help us economically in the long run,” Williams said. 

In his keynote speech, Rupert referred to the "marriage"  between the economy and energy, Lavagnino noted.

“The reality is in Santa Barbara County, there is no marriage,” Lavagnino said. “We are divorced.”

The fact that Santa Barbara County receives 24 percent of property taxes makes it seem like everyone would support energy projects, Lavagnino said.

“What it really gets down to it’s more ideological. It’s more, as we say, religious almost — both sides,” said Lavagnino, who has a history of supporting the oil industry.

“I support it because I see what happens when the money comes into the county. I support the projects that we do as a county and the safety net that provides for the community,” he said, adding that he will be a cheerleader for any renewable energy project creating jobs and boosting property tax revenue.

Representatives of assorted environmental groups in the audience said the forum, and Rupert's presentation, failed to sufficiently speak about risks related to the oil and gas industry and questioned the numbers presentated by Rupert.

“The risk of spills is real,” said Katie Davis, chair of the Santa Barbara Sierra Club, adding that one project’s environmental impact report projects 18 spills every 10 years and other potential problems.

She suggested a panel discussion on alternate economic paths forward for North County. 

One proposed drilling project sits near a school, Davis said, expressing concern about potential dangers to water resources, including the vital Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin.

“I think we could have an interesting debate. I know there wasn’t anyone from the environmental community represented on this panel about the environment,” she said. “I think we should have that conversation.” 

“We like to consider ourselves the original environmentalists,” Kenneth Kahn, chairman of the Santa Ynez Tribe of  Chumash Indians, said at one point.

Ashley Costa, executive director of the Lompoc Valley Community Health Organization, said the challenge becomes weighing health conditions such as the link between poverty and childhood obesity.

Combating childhood obesity requires education, intervention and economic power so a family can access nutritious foods so a parent can model a healthy lifestyle.

“It’s hard to do when I’m simply surviving. It’s hard to do when I’m poor,” she said.

Oil drilling has existed in North County for more than 100 years, Santa Maria Councilman Mike Cordoro said. He also recalled being in Santa Barbara during a massive spill decades ago.

“There is a never a good day for an oil spill,” he said.

But both sides needs to work together to ensure oil production can continue in a safe way, Cordero said. 

“What can we do to have everybody put their swords on a table and discuss this in a business manner that will allow us to come up with a workable resolution?” Cordero asked 

“For what it’s worth, I think that the nonprofit foundation community can play a really strong role facilitating that conversation,” Costa said. 

Santa Barbara Foundation’s Gallo said the discussion might have started off uncomfortable, but added he liked where it ended.

“One of the trustees of the Santa Barbara Foundation is fond of saying that “the world as we know it is a product of our thinking, and if we want to change the world, we have to change our thinking,” Gallo said, adding that the quote originally came from Albert Einstein. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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