U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein joined environmentalists Tuesday to urge defeat of a bill in Congress that they say will open the California coast to a new wave of oil and gas exploration.
The Democratic senator from California took the unusual step of holding a news conference in Santa Monica -- that overlooked waves lapping the shore -- to plead for public support against the Deep Ocean Energy Act.
Feinstein said the bill, sponsored by California Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), would result in new oil drilling along the coast. Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee, guided the legislation through the House while the Senate passed a separate bill that extends an oil-drilling ban off western Florida to 2022, but does not offer the same protection for California.
“I wish I could say the coast is protected for all time, but I just don’t believe it,” Feinstein said. “There could be a new wave of drilling.”
Pombo maintains the country needs home-grown energy sources to reduce dependency on foreign oil. In a prepared statement, he said his bill would lead to development of new energy supplies while safeguarding the environment.
“Environmental protection and American energy production are not mutually exclusive,” Pombo said.
Total U.S. annual demand for petroleum is about 20 million barrels per day, and 56% comes from imports, according to the federal government’s Energy Information Administration.
But environmentalists worry that more drilling would increase the threat of oil spills off the California coast. They note the recent BP pipeline leak in Alaska and the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara that coated miles of beaches and sparked the U.S. environmental movement as well as stringent protections for the California coast.
“Where there is drilling, there is spilling,” said Tracy Egoscue, executive director of the Santa Monica Baykeeper, an advocacy group.
“Our quality of life is at stake,” said Alix Gerosa, operations director for environmental group Heal the Bay. “California does not want sunsets marred by oil rigs or the possibility of environmental disaster.”
Congress passed legislation in 1981 to protect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts from offshore drilling and has since renewed the moratorium each year. Former President George H. W. Bush created an additional moratorium that prohibited leasing in the deep ocean until 2002. President Clinton extended it to 2011 and President George W. Bush has said he would not reverse the executive order.
But in June, the House passed the Deep Ocean Energy Act to lift the bans that protect the Atlantic and Pacific outer continental shelf from oil and gas drilling. The Pombo bill would eliminate the moratorium in waters farther than 100 miles from shore and lift the moratorium on 50 to 100 miles from shore unless the state Legislature votes to ban drilling. The Legislature would also be able to vote to opt out of the federal moratorium between three and 50 miles from shore.
Feinstein said provisions in a 1994 law that the Legislature passed allow for near-shore drilling using long-reaching “slant wells” if a company is already tapping energy reserves in nearby federal waters. She said Exxon Mobil and Sunset Exploration are seeking to drill using that technology from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, while Plains Exploration, operator of offshore oil platform Irene off Santa Barbara County, also intends to drill in state waters.
Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn., said Pombo’s bill is unlikely to lead to more oil drilling off the California coast because water is too deep far offshore. He said the bill is aimed at promoting drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nevertheless, Feinstein and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said they are opposing the Pombo bill as well as conference hearings to reconcile it with the Senate’s oil-drilling measure. Instead, they advocate the California Ocean and Coastal Protection Act, their attempt to permanently protect California from oil and gas drilling.