Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary


I’ve been quiet for the past two weeks, watching the contentiousness surrounding the proposed Chumash Heritage Marine Sanctuary. Many people intricately familiar with the local politics weighed in on the board’s sudden push to oppose the sanctuary, despite the fact that their stated opposition does nothing to hinder the sanctuary designation process. To be precise, board opposition was more of a symbolic gesture, which is why proponents of the sanctuary thought the move was ideological at best.

The latest round started when the conservative majority of the SLO County Board of Supervisors voted to draft a resolution that opposed the sanctuary. That happened on Jan. 24. The public and the media reacted unfavorably to the sudden push to formalize board opposition, but that didn’t deter the supervisors from moving forward with gusto. By the time the board discussed approving the resolution on Feb. 9, the public was ready. For approximately four hours, residents supporting and opposing the sanctuary spoke. Supporters outnumbered opponents 2 to 1. The fisherman came out to oppose the sanctuary with backing from the local Republican Party and the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business.

Nonetheless, the board decided to move forward with their opposition, but with two interesting amendments. One of the amendments was to express support for Measure A, a 30-year-old ordinance requiring a simple-majority voter approval of county permits issued for onshore projects serving offshore oil and gas developments. The second amendment, which was introduced by Lynn Compton, was a statement supporting Congressman Salud Carbajal’s (D-Santa Barbara) proposed legislation, which would ban offshore drilling in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. These amendments are not binding, and the supervisors know it. The Carbajal bill is unlikely to pass through the Republican-controlled Congress.

So why go through all the trouble just to make a meaningless statement?

To answer that question, we need to consider the following.

The New Times reported that Lynn Compton has taken campaign contributions from big oil interests, despite angrily insisting that she hasn’t “taken a penny from oil in my campaign.” She even challenged the public to review her campaign finances, which they did. Compton received $4,600 from contributors with ties to the oil and gas industries.

Wrote the New Times’ Peter Johnson: “Among the donations are $900 from energy consultant Bruce Falkenhagen, who was fined $100,000 by Santa Barbara County in 1998 for deceiving regulatory agencies while operating an energy plant without pollution controls. She also received $150 from Robert Poole, who at the time was a public affairs consultant with Santa Maria Energy; $350 from Frank W. Smith, a consulting engineer for Pacific Coast Energy Company; $250 from JB Dewar, a Central Coast fuel distributor; and $2,500 from three propane companies.”

But Compton has even closer ties to big oil. Her campaign manager, Amber Johnson, is a lobbyist that previously worked for the Home Builders Association. After serving as campaign manager, Johnson helped spearhead a campaign against Measure P in Santa Barbara County. Measure P was an anti-fracking initiative that was understandably opposed by the oil and gas industries.  The measure was voted down in Nov. 2014. Johnson is currently behind an organization called “Our Protected Coast Coalition,” which is opposed to federal designation of the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

Debbie Arnold also has ties to oil and gas interests. Arnold also received campaign contributions from Bruce Falkenhagen for $250 during her 2016 re-election bid; $1,000 from the co-owners of Central Coast Propane; $1,500 from Frank Platz of Delta Liquid Energy, a propane distributor; $100 from Pacific Coast Strategies, Amber Johnson’s consulting firm. Arnold also paid Amber Johnson $1,000 for campaign consulting and received $100 from her. To be fair, Arnold has also received contributions from non-big oil interests opposing the sanctuary, including the Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Organization and the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians. In case anyone is wondering if Arnold would vote independently, consider the fact that Arnold paid over $15,000 in consulting costs to Meridian Pacific, John Peschong’s political consulting firm. Arnold appreciates his advice.

Before he was elected supervisor, John Peschong received $262,313 from Phillips 66, the oil company behind the oil-by-rail plan, which is being to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. Phillips 66 retained Peschong’s services to craft a communications campaign called “Protect Our Jobs.” Peschong has offered to recuse himself from voting on that appeal item.

There’s a lot to glean from Peschong’s campaign contributions. Many of his contributors are from out of the area and out of the state — many of whom are public relations, public affairs and political consulting firms with confidential clientele information. For example, Peschong received $2,500 from Washington D.C.-based FP1 Strategies LLC, a Republican political consulting firm co-founded by former officials of the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign.  Peschong also received $850 from Richard Claussen, who is a consultant for Redwood Pacific Public Affairs, a Sacramento-based firm that’s behind several Republican communications campaigns and clients.

In a way, receiving a contribution from a political consultant firm is similar to receiving a donation from a Political Action Committee: the public doesn’t know what companies are benefiting from that individual contribution. Peschong is someone who’s been in the political consulting game for years, so he knows how to make his benefactors happy while staying legally afloat. But it’s unmistakable that he’s beholden to a lot of people and companies, including Phillips 66. After all, he is a lobbyist that ran for public office and won.

We can talk about the merits of having a national marine sanctuary, but it would be disingenuous to discount the special interests involved in the debate, especially when said special interests have contributed to the conservative board majority; especially when it’s big oil interests.