New offshore drilling in California is economically infeasible, legally questionable and politically a nonstarter, but if there’s any doubt the state’s coastal waters could still be opened up to oil and gas interests, the Coastal Commission this week flexed its own authority and said no way.
In a packed meeting room in Cambria, the commission on Wednesday signed off on a letter urging the Trump administration to back away from some of the nation’s most pristine coastlines.
“California depends on the international draw of its iconic beaches and ocean waters, and it is the Coastal Commission’s mandate to protect this fragile and precious natural resource,” the letter said. “We were outraged to learn that BOEM [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] had recklessly threatened the health of California’s coastal environment... by proposing to expand drilling off the coast.”
More than $2 trillion of California’s $2.35-trillion gross domestic product — the sixth largest economy in the world, the agency added — comes from coastal counties.
These remarks follow a drumbeat of public pushback on the Interior Department’s plans, announced in early January, to open vast areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to new oil and gas exploration and drilling through a five-year leasing program that would begin in 2019. The governors of California, Oregon and Washington immediately issued a joint statement saying they would do whatever it takes to block new leasing off their shores.
Opposing the Trump administration might score political points in the state’s many progressive coastal communities, but there’s been more than just bluster in recent weeks — commissioners and local officials across the state are spelling out the explicit ways they can prevent new drilling.
The California State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over tidelands and waters extending roughly three miles offshore, also sent a letter this week condemning the plans, declaring that the commission will not approve the construction of new pipelines — the most economical way of transporting oil and gas from offshore rigs to land. Use of existing pipelines to transport oil and gas from new leases will also be prohibited.
“President Trump’s offshore oil drilling plan is a step backward in time, toward an energy policy that blindly handcuffs the nation to an unsustainable future,” said State Lands Commission Chairman and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who hopes to be the state’s next governor. “I am resolved that not a single drop from Trump’s new oil plan ever makes landfall in California.”
In Cambria, state coastal commissioners examined their unique power in blocking the proposed leases from becoming reality. The agency has the authority to review activities in federal waters to ensure they are consistent with California’s coastal management plans.
A number of bipartisan bills and resolutions are working their way through the state Legislature “doubling down” on fighting the issue, commission staff reported.
These public stands — even if they don’t change the mind of the Trump administration — send a strong message to the oil industry, said Alison Dettmer, the commission’s deputy director of energy, oceans and federal consistency. It’s important to let oil companies know that even if the federal government makes a lease available, “you’ve got local governments along the coastline, you’ve got state government agencies and the governor’s office saying, ‘we don’t want you here… it’s going to be expensive, you’re going to be stuck in litigation.’”
Many say opening California waters to new drilling is an unprecedented door that, if opened, will be very hard to shut.
Jack Ainsworth, the commission’s executive director, said even if the big oil companies don’t end up coming to California, with leases open for the taking, “you could still have other oil companies that come in — the second-, third-tier types that may not have the safety record that some of the bigger oil companies have.”
California’s distaste for offshore drilling dates back to 1969, when a devastating 100,000-barrel spill in Santa Barbara killed thousands of seabirds and helped spark the modern environmental movement. The state has not issued a new offshore oil and gas lease since the spill.
During the commission meeting, environmental advocates pleaded for this battle to remain one of decades past. They held up signs declaring “NO OFFSHORE DRILLING” and called on state leaders to fight and commit to a more permanent ban on offshore oil development.
“When I started working in opposition to more offshore oil drilling, my hair was brown and now it’s white — that’s how long it’s been,” said Susan Jordan, longtime advocate and director of the California Coastal Protection Network. “But this is actually the worst threat I’ve seen in that entire time.”
Many in the crowd then left for Sacramento, where the Trump administration Thursday is holding its only public meeting in California about its drilling expansion plans.
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