Commentary: Schwarzenegger makes right call on offshore oil drilling

If it took a ecological catastrophe to come around, so be it.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger effectively deep-sixed a plan for oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast when he pulled his support Monday, saying he changed his mind over the weekend after seeing the environmental damage done by the massive oil spill off the Gulf Coast.

The Santa Barbara proposal's supporters argued that such exploration is much safer today than in 1969, when a wellhead blowout in the same waters spoiled 40 miles of coastline and led to California's four-decade moratorium on new offshore drilling.

Well, the drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are supposedly technological marvels. But all it took was one crucial piece of equipment to fail after the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig for crude to gush into the gulf off the Louisiana coast. As a slick the size of Delaware moves toward the coast, rich fishing grounds have been closed, and estuaries teeming with wildlife and beaches beckoning tourists are threatened.

For two years, the governor had pushed the Tranquillon Ridge project to help provide more domestic petroleum and to plug the state budget hole, specifically to pay for state parks. The state would get $100 million up front, then as much as $4 billion depending on oil prices (the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates more like $1.8 billion) by letting a Houston firm drill for 14 years and pump out as much as 90 million barrels of oil.

The risk of a similar disaster off the California coast may be small. A study done for Santa Barbara County concluded that the risk of a spill would double to 11 percent during those 14 years, but a spill would be one-tenth the size of the one in 1969.

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