Column

The Trump victory, the threat to California's greatest natural resource, and the new urgency for a strong Coastal Commission

All summer long, I celebrated the California coast, marking the 40-year anniversary of protections built into the Coastal Act.

Now winter is coming on, and I’m scared of what could happen to the greatest 1,100-mile beach on  the planet.

We have a president-elect who said he’d like to bulldoze the Environmental Protection Agency, thinks global warming is a fairy tale, and has surrounded himself with knuckle-draggers who would frack in marine sanctuaries and drill in Yosemite if they could get away with it.

“I think California’s clean-coast economy is hanging on by a thread right now,” said Ocean Foundation senior fellow Richard Charter, who has worked for decades to protect coastal waters from offshore oil and gas drilling.

“There have been three or four instances in the last three years where the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to either open up new leases off Southern California or to require the secretary of the interior to promote new drilling from existing leases,” said Charter.

Those efforts were beaten back, but Charter fears President-elect Donald Trump might spearhead future attempts to chip away at restrictions and drill, baby, drill. At the moment, leading candidates to head the Energy and Interior departments include a billionaire oil magnate and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who declared Oct. 13 “Oilfield Prayer Day” in her state.

Former California Sen. and U.S. President Richard Nixon, an arch conservative in his day, is an environmental visionary and hero next to Trump and his minions. Nixon was stunned by the horrific damage from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and helped create the EPA, a key achievement in the birth of the modern environmental movement.

Not that the coast has ever been clear.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Marin County supervisor before heading off to Congress in 1983, recalls watching Ronald Reagan’s Interior secretary, James Watt, promise to drill off the California coast.

“We organized the fishermen and the environmentalists and the tourists and we beat them back,” said Boxer. “We’ve been beating them back...ever since.”

The coast was in peril when she went to Washington, she said, and it’s in peril now that she’s about to retire. Boxer joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein and senators from Oregon and Washington in a mid-November plea to President Obama. The president has extended a ban on Pacific oil and gas leasing through 2022, but the senators asked him to make it permanent.

“We’re awaiting a response,” said Boxer, who told me both the five-year ban and a permanent ban could be hit with legal challenges by Trump, but she’d rather have a permanent ban in place.

Also lobbying for a permanent ban are state legislators including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), the Center for Biological Diversity and a gaggle of environmental groups.

And where’s Gov. Jerry Brown?

Missing in action.

I asked a spokesman if I could speak to the governor or at least get a comment on whether Brown supports the call for a permanent ban on coastal drilling.

Instead, I was emailed a copy of a 2014 letter from Brown and the governors of Oregon and Washington in which they asked the federal government to extend a ban through 2022.

Gee, thanks. But that’s 2 ½ years old. Besides, we now have a ban through 2022, but we also have a president-elect surrounded by drill-happy oil tycoons.

Does the governor of California, who has been a climate change leader, have nothing more to say?

Apparently not. He’s doing the mummy act again, like he did during an entire year of turmoil on the California Coastal Commission, with its arrogant firing of the executive director and its shameless penchant for breaking the rules on private meetings with developers.

Meanwhile, a candidate to replace Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, will be on the spot this week as a member of the State Lands Commission. Newsom sits on that three-member panel, which may decide what to do about the Silicon Valley billionaire who is fighting to keep people off a beach, near Half Moon Bay, enjoyed by the public for decades.

The state couldn’t reach a settlement with Vinod Khosla on the price of an easement allowing public access, and now the Lands Commission has to decide what to do about it. One option is to condemn the property through eminent domain and buy it for the public.

I say yes. If the bully won’t agree to a reasonable price for a simple trail to a beach that’s owned by the public, play hardball. Condemn his property, evict him and take it back, even if it that means a long court fight, and even if the money is hard to come by.

This state, its elected officials and its appointed regulators have got to send a stronger message that the coast is ours, by law, by right, by virtue of our voter-approved mandate that a gift of nature is not a commodity, but a public treasure.

That’s especially important now that Trump is on the loose.

The oil companies would love to pump money out of the seabeds off of La Jolla, Orange County, Malibu, the Gaviota coast, the Lost Coast, and if there’s more drilling with fewer protections, fisheries, birds and beaches are in peril.

“We’re going to have to rely more on our state government, our local governments and just plain citizen involvement...otherwise any part of the California coast that’s not in a marine sanctuary today is toast,” said Charter.

He added that the last line of defense is the California Coastal Commission. If you want to drill off shore, he said, you need an onshore operation to transport or process whatever is being pumped, and that’s where the coastal commission can put up roadblocks.

The agency has enormous and unique power that sometimes supersedes federal control. With five or six replacements due on the 12-person commission, and a search under way for a new executive leader, that’s all the more reason for Brown and legislative leaders to build a stronger, more professional team of coastal stewards, and for the public to scrutinize their every move.

As I’ve noted before, Peter Douglas, the late godfather of the Coastal Commission, once said the coast is never saved, it’s always being saved.

That call to action is more important now than ever.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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UPDATES:

9:55 a.m.: This article was updated to include Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León among those lobbying for a permanent ban on Pacific oil and gas leasing.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

An earlier version of this article stated that President Richard Nixon was a former California governor. He was a California senator.
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