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Remember Santa Barbara

Is this is a reminder to consider the destruction and remember the dead from an historic wildfire followed by heavy rain and lethal mudslides near Santa Barbara? No.I’m asking for your recollection of a 1969 Santa Barbara event. It’s connected to a recent decision by Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

After removing protections from national monuments in the west, opening them to first-time drilling and fracking, Zinke recently announced that the federal government would open all U.S. coastlines to offshore drilling. Florida’s governor objected and his state was exempted from this plan. Why?

Was it because Mar-a-Lago is close to Palm Beach, or was it that Florida already took an economic and environmental thrashing from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil leak several years ago?

If the latter, maybe the cries of foul from California officials for a “me too” exemption will be heard. Will Zinke respond positively, or will he deny California because most of the other shoreline states would obviously want an exemption, too?

Maybe California has a “trump” card.If the west coast of Florida already suffered from miles of beach fouling, wildlife loss and commercial fishing prohibition based on toxicity, maybe it will help if we remind Zinke of the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 — the nation’s first.

Alaska might skip this gig as well, due to an exemption they earned by taking one on the chin courtesy of the Exxon Valdez spill, where continued employment of a known alcoholic captain was the best Exxon could do in the way of safety and preparedness on our behalf.

Independence fantasy 

Why do we need to search for more oil on our shores? Is there a shortage? In a way there is; a shortage of truth and understanding. While we get tired bromides from politicians and policymakers that “America needs to be energy independent,” you should know that as recently as 2011, refined crude oil products were the largest dollar-valued export from the U.S. They traveled overseas to foreign nations.

Many believe the fantasy that as more crude oil is discovered and brought inside our borders, refined supplies will go up and prices will then come down.How’s that going to remain possible with so much being exported? The bottom line here is that Big Oil’s bottom line is what counts most. We get all the pollution and the environmental risks of contamination, and they get boosted profit via exports that keep supplies tight and prices up. “Energy independence” is a mantra used to deflect our concerns.

It’s the same story with hydraulic fracturing and methane gas. At least a dozen LNG (liquified natural gas) terminals are seeking permits on U.S. shores so that Big Gas can export the recently fracked surplus to someone else at a greater profit than selling it into a flooded U.S. market. Once again, we accept the risks and the pollution, while the carbon still gets burned elsewhere, contributing to climate change already costing our nation a fortune in fires, droughts and floods. By the way, California still allows over 2,000 unregulated fracking wastewater wells to dispose of their chemical brew into underground aquifers.

Hope Floats?

Against all this push for fossil fuels, something unusual happened in our state last April.For the first time ever, our entire electric grid load was satisfied by nothing, but one nuclear plant and assorted renewables. No carbon was burned. Eighteen months ago when I initiated a conversation with my congressman at a local public gathering, I was told that “solar doesn’t work.”

Large-scale solar electric generation has already slain coal as a lower cost alternative and it’s nipping at the heels of gas in some markets.(Full disclosure — I am aware the sun can’t shine at night.)However, major advances in grid battery storage have broken the former barrier of storing solar-based electrons when the sun may not shine. Hundreds of megawatts can now be placed in storage, close to points of use where serving utilities prefer to locate them. They are available more quickly than fossil fueled “peaker” plants, and perform this function silently, without emissions. Some are referring to this as “beneficial electrification.”

Joining with output from large scale wind turbines, solar electricity matched with grid storage was one of three alternative approaches announced by Pacific Gas and Electric in 2016 that supports their intention to completely decommission Diablo Canyon’s 2,200 Megawatts of nuclear power by 2025. The company expects this path to save ratepayers $5 billion compared to re-licensing them. Our energy future is changing, but some are slow to get the message.

Are we learning?

Forty-nine years have past since 1969’s goopy mess came ashore at Santa Barbara from a blowout on a drilling platform where a company insisted “… all appropriate safety measures have been taken.” This seems to be the repetitive sentiment uttered after every (polluting) environmental event since.

While Big Fossil continues to enjoy federal tax subsidies that began long before 1969, it has been an uphill battle to seek recognition for all the renewable technologies, both in policy and toward appropriate encouragements through subsidy.

Carbonless and emission-free renewables have never hurt anyone (unless you consider their direct threat to fossil-based business models). Like the tobacco lobby, Big Fossil has protected its flanks by purchasing influence in a U.S. Congress that seems less dedicated to our future and more enamored with business as usual. The problem is both a short-term issue of accidents and pollution and a long-term threat of continued climate change. Ignoring that slow motion disaster will cost trillions of dollars to fight for our survival.In the end, the perpetual clamor for cheap fossil fuels and acceptance of environmental risk will doom our civilization to an outcome that no last minute emergency cash infusion can stop or reverse.

Over the past 50 years, business and industry have promised that shoulder seat belts, catalytic converters, advanced exhaust treatment, and crashworthy vehicles will be unaffordable, putting them out-of-reach for the average consumer. Renewable electricity, zero net energy buildings and the abandonment of nuclear power plants have been scoffed at in the same way — and yet they are all here today.

Politics (as usual)

The serious threat we face is the perpetuation of the politically protected business model that works against us. For all the lip service to “let the market decide,” corporations and their lobbying armies are still pulling our strings. Offshore drilling has never been safe enough, and returning it to U.S. shorelines produces new threats to our environment and our economy.Santa Barbara should be on our minds right now for deadly fires and floods, but we should not forget the half-century since that first wake-up call, largely ignored by the federal government. Business and capitalism have been great for our country. Unfortunately, each or both may kill us if our representative democracy dies first.

3 thoughts on “Remember Santa Barbara

  • Learn the difference between “past” and “passed”

  • Bob:

    You disclosed that you are aware that the sun does not shine at night. However, you might want to brush up on the methods used to quantify the total energy production available from the sun compared to the energy that customers need to live their modern lifestyles.

    On a sunny, breezy day in April when few people were running heating or cooling systems, solar, wind, hydro and nuclear may have been able to meet all of California’s immediate demand. There likely wasn’t any power left for charging any storage. If the capacity for all of those sources was doubled, there would still not be enough energy being put into storage to enable making it through a single night, especially if the 2200 MWe of Diablo Canyon is taken out of the…

  • But wait! How am I going to charge my ‘lectric Tesla and Obama phone?

    Can’t we just turn up those solar panels?

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