Spill, Baby, Spill

07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you're of a certain age, like me, you can still remember the horrifying scenes that unfolded for weeks along the Santa Barbara shoreline -- the oil-drenched birds, the blackened sands, the hundreds of crews in rain slickers battling vainly against the advancing ooze.

Now, 40 years later, here we are again. Our nation's coast is about to be assaulted once more by the failure of an offshore drilling rig, triggering the same kind of man-made mayhem that hit Santa Barbara in 1969 and that led to a series of landmark laws aimed at protecting our natural environment.

I know that four decades is a long time to hold something vividly in our memories. There is a natural tendency to forget, in the absence of catastrophe, the monumental consequences that can flow from a single mishap. This is why, in recent times, I believe there has been a softening among some policymakers of both parties towards off-shore drilling.

But the truth is that the public should expect more from those of us entrusted with protecting our eco-systems for future generations. The lessons of Santa Barbara -- and those that now will be learned along the Gulf Coast -- should require no remedial work. We need to ace these tests the first time or face the kind of unmitigated environmental and economic disaster that at this very moment is barreling down on the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Simply put, we must stop any future consideration of off-shore drilling leases because no oil company can ever guarantee that an accident will not happen again, no matter how many rosy reports the industry churns out about the safety of such drilling.

I applaud Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for recognizing that truth and reversing course yesterday in his plan for more drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara, which he had hoped would pump revenues into the state's deficit-plagued budget. I also support President Obama's move to halt any new off-shore leases until a complete investigation is completed of the explosion on BP's deep-water platform in the Gulf. But I'd go a significant step further and put an end to additional off-shore drilling no matter what the circumstances surrounding the BP probe.

Our overriding public policy on this issue must be that the coastline is a resource worth protecting -- one that, on balance, is of greater significance than the revenues of the oil industry or the relatively small amount of oil extracted from off-shore rigs. And I believe, from personal experience, that this is what the public wants.

Back in 1988, when I served on the Los Angeles City Council, the late-Councilman Marvin Braude and I authored a local ballot measure called Proposition O that banned drilling on land within a mile of the beach. The opposition spent huge sums in a misleading campaign to defeat our measure. Nonetheless, Prop. O passed and remains the law in the City of Los Angeles.

So now another test is upon us. Will we continue to cling to a belief that, with just a little more technological know-how, we'll be able to safely perfect the science of ocean drilling? Or will we finally learn that now is the time to seriously move forward with the development of renewable energy sources that do not carry with them a certainty of environmental destruction?

This much I know for sure if we continue the status quo: "drill, baby, drill" inevitably will become "spill, baby, spill."