The State Lands Commission, in a slap at Gov. George Deukmejian, voted Wednesday to prohibit offshore oil drilling in state waters off Northern California by declaring the region an ocean sanctuary.
Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, and state Controller Gray Davis--who together form a majority of the three-member commission--moved to ban offshore oil drilling along 214 miles of the Mendocino and Humboldt County coastline.
Although the decision applies only to state waters within 3 miles of the coast, backers of the sanctuary hope that it will help persuade members of Congress and the next President not to permit oil and gas exploration in federal waters along the scenic coast.
“The action we will take today is unprecedented, but I think it is absolutely essential to send a message to the next Congress and the next President that these 214 miles are not fair game,” commission Chairman Davis told about 250 cheering Mendocino residents packed into a town hall for the meeting.
The Lands Commission’s vote effectively reverses Deukmejian’s veto in August of a bill that would have declared a sanctuary along the same portions of the rugged coastline--nearly a fifth of the California coast.
Over the years, the Legislature has declared sanctuaries for state waters elsewhere along the coast, including much of Southern and Central California. However, all of Mendocino County and the northern two-thirds of Humboldt County had been excluded.
By filling in the gaps, the Lands Commission has now created a continuous sanctuary from San Luis Obispo to the Oregon border.
Members of Congress who oppose drilling in federal waters had asked the commission to declare the state sanctuary to demonstrate that Californians are opposed to oil drilling along the entire North Coast.
“This positive step by the commission will assist our efforts to protect the federal waters off California from oil and gas development,” wrote Democratic Reps. Mel Levine of Los Angeles, Barbara Boxer of Greenbrae and Leon Panetta of Carmel Valley.
The commission’s action came at the right time for McCarthy to highlight his opposition to offshore oil drilling. Locked in an uphill battle to unseat Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, McCarthy pledged that if elected he would seek to prohibit offshore oil drilling in federal waters.
“This is only the first step today,” the lieutenant governor said. “The next step is to create an ocean sanctuary under federal law that will apply the same doctrine in federal waters.”
McCarthy also challenged Wilson to support federal sanctuary legislation, saying, “The ocean sanctuary question is the decisive measurement of whether or not you are really for the coast.”
While Wilson, like McCarthy, has been an outspoken opponent of a Reagan Administration plan to open much of the California coast to oil exploration, he has not taken a position on the sanctuary proposal.
Otto Bos, Wilson’s campaign manager, said the senator has preferred to work for passage of specific legislation aimed at blocking the proposed sale of federal oil leases.
The Lands Commission, which is charged with administering the state’s tidelands, has the authority to issue leases for oil exploration within California waters, which extend 3 miles from shore.
In addition to the lieutenant governor and the controller, the governor’s finance director, Jesse R. Huff, or a designated alternate, sits on the commission. But no one appeared at the hearing to represent the Deukmejian Administration on the panel.
Tom Beermann, a spokesman for the governor, said the commission’s action comes as no surprise, but he had no further comment on the decision. Deukmejian vetoed the sanctuary bill, saying it would lock away precious oil reserves that are needed to keep the United States “energy independent.”
In Mendocino, where the threat of offshore oil drilling is an emotional issue that transcends traditional political boundaries, McCarthy and Davis received an enthusiastic welcome.
Local residents--from school children to retirees, Democrats and Republicans--turned out for the meeting. Applause filled the hall for every argument mustered in support of the sanctuary idea.
Supporters of the sanctuary argued that an oil spill from drilling platforms off the North Coast would be impossible to clean up because of rough seas and the rugged terrain. They also said the region would produce less oil than could be saved simply by tightening fuel efficiency standards.
Representatives of Exxon and the Western Oil and Gas Assn. countered that there could be substantial amounts of oil under state waters and it would be shortsighted to permanently ban drilling in the area.
But McCarthy summarized the sentiment of many North Coast residents when he said: “Unpolluted air, horizons unmarred by derricks and tankers, clean oceans, and abundant marine and coastal wildlife make this area special and unique. Drilling would destroy that magnificence.”