Tuesday, July 25, 2006

California Contradictions

The Senate is currently considering modifications to the federal ban on offshore drilling, in parallel with the various House bills I mentioned recently. The opposition to this measure is led by the Golden State's two Senators, with Governor Schwarzenegger cheering them on. After reading the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage, I was again struck by the hypocrisy of my home state on this issue. More than any other state, California has been defined by the car, and by extension, by the oil that fuels it. Few states, however, display California’s consistent aversion to the infrastructure that makes its prized mobility possible.

Californians own 13.3% of the nation’s cars and light trucks, compared to their 12% share of the total population. When I lived there from the early 1960s to the early 90s, life without a car was nearly unimaginable. Getting one's driver’s license was nearly the most important life passage, just behind birth and death, and possibly ahead of marriage. Despite decades of investment in mass transit systems, millions of Californians still find driving at least as much of a right and necessity as it was 20 years ago. As a result, the state consumes over a million barrels per day of gasoline, and almost 1.6 million of all petroleum products, resulting in a net state oil deficit of a million barrels per day.

California's petroleum industry has been an important contributor to the economy for over a century. Although the previously ubiquitous "rocking horse" pumping units are disappearing from Southern California's urban landscapes as old fields deplete, the state continues to rank third in the nation behind Texas and Alaska in production, even after a roughly 1/3 decline in volume since the 1980s. Along the way, it has produced 27 billion barrels of oil, roughly the same quantity as Kuwait.

16% of California's production comes from existing offshore platforms, though this figure is destined to fall, as long as the offshore drilling ban remains in place. While it is hard to say how much more oil it could be producing today had offshore drilling continued, the latest USGS assessment indicates that the state still has another couple of billion barrels of oil left to discover, more than half of which is likely to be offshore. That may not sound like much, but it’s potentially enough to displace a third of the state’s imports from overseas for a decade or two.

In spite of all this, California remains unalterably opposed to new offshore drilling, either close to shore or over the horizon, citing the risks to tourism and the environment. Unfortunately, this fails to weigh the small risk of spills from modern oil platforms against the much larger risk of spills from the growing number of tankers that bring in imports. As to tourism, I've traveled every inch of California's coastline, and I've never met anyone who avoided Malibu or Santa Barbara because their viewscapes include a few offshore platforms.

This is hardly the only area in which the Golden State's attitudes seem contradictory, but it's striking for the way it sets two of the most central things in California life against each other: the Pacific coast and the car. The result of this contradiction is high demand for oil, as long as coastal residents can't see its source, whether from Alaska, Saudi Arabia, or even Kern County. With real oil prices and the risk of supply disruptions at a 30-year high, this attitude looks increasingly irresponsible and unrealistic.

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