But promises only go so far.
So some in Sacramento now are trying to lock those pledges into law — safeguarding the coast from offshore drilling no matter the whims of future administrations.
Despite decades of lawsuits and regulations, the state’s ability to block offshore drilling hinges largely on who’s in power in the state Capitol. Even with staunch opposition by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and pledges from both candidates vying to be the next governor, future leaders could still allow new drilling if they choose.
Two bills that could live or die Thursday would close that possibility by barring state land managers from allowing the construction of new pipelines, piers, wharves or other infrastructure necessary to transport the oil and gas from water to land.
In a state where polls show 69% of residents oppose more drilling off their coast, such legislation may seem like a shoo-in. “But unfortunately it’s not,” said Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), acting chair of the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee.
A similar Senate bill last year failed amid pressure from powerful oil and business interests that said stripping the state of this decision-making authority could do more harm than good.
Muratsuchi said he agreed to team up with state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and seven coauthors this year to reintroduce the issue as nearly identical bills in the Assembly and the Senate, and overcome what he said were the key challenges: “Oily Democrats,” a more business-friendly Assembly than in years past, and powerful lobbying alliances in Sacramento.
The stalling of the legislation last year marked an instance in which California, famous for leading the charge on environmental laws, left other states to pave the way. New Jersey and New York picked up and adopted similar legislation this year. Delaware and Maryland are also looking to pass laws that would bar new drilling in state waters.
But with mounting public pushback against the Trump administration’s efforts to upend California’s environmental protections, backers say the bills have a new urgency this year.
“We need to take control of what we can control — and what we can control is our state land and waters,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation who has worked on oil issues for 40 years. “I have never seen this level of danger to California’s coastline.”
Bills AB 1775 and SB 834 would prohibit the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over tidelands and waters extending roughly three miles offshore, from granting leases for new pipelines and infrastructure — the most economical way to transport oil and gas to land. The Senate version of the bill goes a step further, banning the commission from renewing an existing lease if that action will result in increased oil or natural gas production from federal waters.
Currently, the commission’s oil decisions are subject to the vote of two elected officials, the lieutenant governor and the state controller, and one appointee of the governor, the director of the state Department of Finance.
Both Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic candidate for governor, and John Cox, the Republican candidate who has Trump’s backing, have declared that the commission’s current commitment to barring new leases would not change under their leadership.
“I oppose any new offshore oil drilling or expansion in California’s coastal waters,” Cox said in a statement to The Times. “As Governor, I would look actively for potential appointees to the State Lands Commission who reflect this important view and will actively work to find new or creative solutions instead of expanding drilling off of California.”
The State Lands Commission has not taken a public stance on the bills. But Newsom has vowed that under his watch, “not a single drop from Trump's new oil plan ever makes landfall in California."
But the commission has not always taken that position. Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis, said perspectives can shift, as they did in the 1980s when the commission supported developing oil and gas in state tidelands off the Santa Barbara coast. Amid mounting protest, he said, the commission ultimately voted 2 to 1 to reject Arco’s Coal Oil Point project.
“Locking a policy into state law — which individual gubernatorial appointees or independently elected constitutional officers cannot change — really is the best, most effective tool in the toolbox,” he said.
The bills have sparked opposition by a coalition of business, manufacturing and oil groups. Republicans in Congress have also proposed financial penalties for states that try to block offshore drilling.
The Western States Petroleum Assn., which has spent more than $11.5 million for lobbying on a variety of bills during this legislative session, said the offshore drilling legislation could force unintended fiscal and environmental consequences. The measures would remove the commission’s authority to “ensure that oil is transported by the safest methods available,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the group’s president.
Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., called the bills “misguided measures” that “would further threaten our state’s energy security and affordability.”
“California has the nation’s strongest environmental safeguards,” Zierman said, “so it makes sense to meet our energy needs here under these strict standards, instead of relying upon more imported oil that is produced without these protections and impacts the environment when it is transported here by tanker ship or rail car.”
Pushback isn’t coming solely from oil interests, whose money has influence across party lines. Opponents include the California Manufacturers & Technology Assn., the Orange County Business Council and the California Chamber of Commerce.
In letters against the legislation, the chamber cited concerns raised over last year’s bill by the Department of Finance, which warned of increased litigation and estimated the legislation “would result in General Fund losses of $1 million to $5 million.”
“It is in the state’s best interest to keep the evaluation and decision-making for leases in public lands and tidelands in the hands of state experts with a proven track record of environmental protection,” the business group’s letter said.
Oil and gas production from the state’s tidelands peaked in the 1960s and has been more or less declining ever since. The state has not issued a new offshore oil and gas lease since a devastating 1969 spill in Santa Barbara turned public sentiment against offshore drilling. In 1994, the state Legislature passed the California Coastal Sanctuary Act, which prohibits new leasing in state waters.
Over the decades, governors across party lines, State Lands and the California Coastal Commission have fought off additional offshore drilling — challenging federal efforts in court when necessary.
When the Reagan administration sought to open much of the nation’s outer continental shelves, 24 cities and counties across California passed local laws banning new infrastructure that would support offshore drilling. Seventeen were sued by oil companies, but the local ordinances all still exist in some form today.
Now, with the Trump administration proposing to open vast areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to oil and gas exploration and drilling through a leasing program beginning as early as 2019, state lawmakers say California needs to wake up to a new reality.
“We here in California need to be speaking loud and clear about our opposition to these kinds of reckless, destructive and absolutely inexplicable efforts to undermine our planet and our environment and our public health,” said Jackson, who wrote the Senate bills last year and this year. “And the most effective way is to make it a state law.”
Whether the bills move forward hinges this week on whether they move out of the appropriations committees in both houses of the Legislature. Last year’s bill got stuck at this step.
If either of the bills pass, Brown would have until the end of September to take action.
Trump, many say, has galvanized a state that may have gotten complacent about fighting to protect its coastline. Even last year when the Senate bill died, the threat of new offshore drilling didn’t feel imminent, said Linda Krop, chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center.