Leaders of California's scenic Santa Barbara County, site of a 1969 oil spill that galvanized the modern environmental movement, voted on Tuesday to reverse a decision backing new offshore energy development.
The county Board of Supervisors' 3-2 vote, though largely symbolic, signaled a shift in U.S. energy politics since the same panel's surprise move last August to urge California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to support an expansion of oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast.
Last summer, gasoline prices were surging above $4 a gallon and then President George W. Bush was pressing Congress to lift a longtime ban on offshore development, stirring chants of drill, baby, drill at the Republican National Convention.
Since then, oil and gasoline prices have ebbed, President Barack Obama has taken office calling for greater investments in alternative energy sources and Republican, pro-drilling advocates lost their majority on the five-member county board.
Supervisor Salud Carbajal, a sponsor of Tuesday's measure, said action was timed to set the record straight on opposition to offshore oil development before a U.S. Interior Department hearing on the issue in San Francisco next week.
It comes at a time when the federal government is seeking our input, Carbajal told Reuters after the vote. He called the previous 3-2 board vote welcoming new drilling regrettable.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he favors expanded offshore drilling as part of a larger U.S. energy plan but has called for collecting fresh data on oil and gas reserves before opening new tracts of the sea floor to development. Some of those lie off Santa Barbara County.
Schwarzenegger has remained opposed to opening new areas off California to drilling.
Santa Barbara, one of the most picturesque and upscale communities in the nation, became a flash point for environmental activism 40 years ago when 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of crude oil spilled from an offshore rig, fouling stretches of coast. Populations of sea birds, seals and dolphins were decimated.
State and federal regulations were subsequently tightened and oil production in the area resumed after a temporary halt. Roughly 20 platforms remain in operation off the county coastline today.
Drilling supporters on the board of supervisors argued that major technical improvements on extraction methods have substantially lowered the risk of future spills.
But the board's latest action reinstates its opposition to expanded oil and gas development along the coast and urges Congress and the Obama administration to restore a moratorium on new offshore leasing in federal waters.
The board lacks direct authority over offshore drilling but it can issue permits for key onshore support facilities.
(Edited by Bernie Woodall and John O'Callaghan)