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California Politics: The oil won’t come out easily

Workers in protective gear comb the Huntington Beach shoreline with the pier and a cloudy sky in the background
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In 1921, California lawmakers first crafted rules governing exploration of the state’s coastal waters for oil. It was hardly a radical concept, given offshore drilling began in the waters off Santa Barbara County in 1897.

But a century later, after a leaking oil pipeline has left some 144,000 gallons of crude in the waters and on the Orange County shoreline, Gov. Gavin Newsom argued that the industry’s long history should be just that — history.

“It’s time, once and for all, to disabuse ourselves that this has to be part of our future,” Newsom said Tuesday. “This is part of our past.”

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The embrace of strict limits is hardly a controversial stance, given its longtime support by voters. But below the surface, the politics of oil in California are far more viscous — especially when it comes to Democrats and the intra-party battles over the industry’s environmental and economic impacts.

“We need to have the political will,” former state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said. “But it’s difficult.”

Oil opponents see an opening

Few elected officials know the issue better than Jackson, who represented Santa Barbara in the California Legislature for 14 years and offered a number of proposals to downsize offshore drilling, including a 2018 law that constrains new onshore operations.

In her view, the fundamental issue has never changed even as operations have been modernized and some incidents, like last weekend’s spill near Huntington Beach, may not have been directly caused by drilling mishaps.

“If you’re going to drill, you’re going to have spills,” Jackson said.

The most recent incident is the second in California in the past six years and likely the worst since an oil tanker ran over its own anchor in 1990 along the same stretch of Orange County coastline. Oil spills also happened in 2015 when an onshore pipeline leaked oil along the Santa Barbara coast near Goleta and in 2007 when a tanker crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

And no oil disaster was more consequential than the 1969 blowout on an offshore platform in the Santa Barbara Channel, still ranked as one of the worst in U.S. history and sparking a national environmental movement.

Local and state leaders this week have suggested the Huntington Beach spill should do what the 1969 accident and others did not: bring to an end all drilling along the California coast.

“We cannot be mild, we cannot be contained,” state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) said. “We have to be bold and aggressive.”

Tricky navigation ahead

Min has promised to launch an effort in the Legislature next year to end all existing offshore oil drilling — an audacious goal given the obstacles that stand in the way in Sacramento and Washington.

Regardless, the marker being laid down by the Southern California legislator could make 2022 the most intense and impactful year for the debate over coastal drilling since the 1969 calamity.

The first challenge is marked by an imaginary line some three miles out into the Pacific Ocean, the legal line separating state and federal control over drilling operations. Twenty-seven platforms dot the California coast, with all but four of those located in federal waters. (Five artificial islands were also created for oil activities.) That means the state has an indirect role, at best, over most facilities — mainly through the regulation of oil operations that cross state waters and onto the shore.

Many of the state’s congressional Democrats are adamant about changing federal policy. In May, Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) introduced a ban on any new leasing in federally controlled waters. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) suggested this week in a post on Twitter that offshore drilling is an existential threat to Californians.

“We must end Big Oil’s dominance in Washington,” Porter wrote.

But back to existing drilling operations. When it comes to ending those activities in California, legal challenges are all but certain.

“Trying to shut down an existing facility that has its leases and drilling permits is exceedingly difficult,” Deborah A. Sivas, a professor of environmental law at Stanford Law School, told The Times this week. “No facility’s going to take that lying down. There’s a pretty robust takings claim here.”

Which means the best-case scenario probably involves money. A lot of it.

Gary Brown, the president of Orange County Coastkeeper, said Thursday that there could be an opening with oil companies that are operating some platforms at a loss rather than pay the high cost to mothball those facilities — the “rigs to reef” effort envisioned by a 2010 state law but largely ineffective at shutting down the facilities.

“The truth is, it’s cheaper to operate them at a loss than it is to decommission them,” Brown said of the oil platforms during an event with lawmakers and activists. “And they estimate that would take eight to 10 years just to get the approvals to take one out.”

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) said state officials should help provide an “economic incentive” for offshore operations to wind down.

Or, put more bluntly a few minutes later by Min: “Ultimately this may cost money, this may need a significant appropriation.”

Remember that the state continues to enjoy a surplus of tax revenues and Newsom, like former Gov. Jerry Brown before him, has often favored one-time expenses. Could payments to oil companies be ultimately a good way to spend a windfall of cash?

Oil runs deep in California politics

Absent something that’s seen as holding most players harmless, a frontal assault on the oil industry faces tough odds at the state Capitol.

A handful of legislative Democrats have been consistently skeptical of efforts to limit oil industry operations in recent years, often the reason for their less-than-stellar marks on the environmental community’s annual scorecard.

Case in point: A law signed by Newsom last year to impose higher fines on some ocean oil spills, inspired by what its author said was a system that, at the time, imposed the equivalent of only a “parking ticket” in fines imposed on a Texas-based company after the 2015 incident near Goleta. At least a dozen Democrats, most of them in the state Assembly, abstained from voting on the final version. Two months earlier, in the first big Assembly vote, 20 Democrats in the Assembly either voted against the bill or abstained.

The skeptics in the majority party generally voice concerns about the economic impacts, pointing to blue-collar jobs that the oil industry has created. It’s a concern anti-drilling Democrats know they’ll have to address head-on in next year’s debate, perhaps by including a transition phase and assistance to ensure those workers find new, well-paying positions.

“These are high-paying jobs,” Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said Thursday. “So, we need to start creating comparable high-paying clean energy jobs and we need to do it yesterday.”

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From polls to ballots

Finally, a reminder that public opinion polling shows that offshore oil drilling doesn’t have a large constituency in California.

Liberal coastal Democrats are not the only voters who strongly opposed additional drilling in a July poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Seventy percent of adults unaffiliated with any party also were against the idea, as were 75% of self-described moderates and 64% of inland residents. A healthy dose of Republicans — 43% — also expressed concern with additional offshore oil drilling.

Look for Democrats to use the Huntington Beach incident as a wedge issue in next year’s elections, especially in Southern California’s battleground congressional races. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took aim at week’s end at two first-term Republicans, Reps. Michelle Steel (R-Seal Beach) and Young Kim (R-Fullerton) as “Big Oil darlings” who refused to support offshore oil shutdowns.

California politics lightning round

— Amid increasing criticism that the state’s medical board is failing to discipline bad doctors, the governor signed a bill Thursday with a handful of long-sought reforms. But critics say those changes don’t address their main concern.

— Less than a month after prescribed burns were credited with saving California’s giant sequoia trees, Newsom on Wednesday signed legislation that will promote more of the practice.

— California’s sweeping rule to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 includes a critical, unheralded caveat: Parents can opt their children out of inoculation based on personal beliefs.

— Faced with criticism from many Californians thrown out of work during the pandemic, Newsom on Tuesday gave his approval to a package of bills aimed at reducing delays and fraud in the state’s beleaguered unemployment benefits system.

— California will impose a new vaping tax to curb teen use and fund public health programs.

— Prominent Democrats Fabian Nuñez, Barbara Boxer and Antonio Villaraigosa led a series of mass resignations from one of the state’s most powerful lobbying firms, Mercury Public Affairs.

— The state’s pandemic-inspired move toward mailing a ballot to every registered, active voter will become a permanent part of its political landscape.

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