California offshore drilling could be expanded for the first time since 1984 under federal leasing proposal
The Trump administration, inviting a political backlash from coastal state leaders, on Thursday proposed to open for exploration the largest expanse of the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas reserves ever offered to global energy companies, including waters off the coast of California.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the draft five-year leasing plan would commit 90% of the nation’s offshore reserves to leasing, including areas off all three regions of the California coast that have been off-limits to oil and gas exploration since the Reagan administration.
The draft plan, now subject to review and debate, would allow the first new federal lease sales off California since 1984. It sparked immediate fury from Democratic leaders up and down the West Coast.
“The American people deserve smart, strong action to keep our communities healthy, clean and safe. Yet the Trump administration is racing forward with its increasingly brazen attempts to loot our environment and our planet,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement. “Americans from coast to coast will make their voices heard to oppose this blatant corporate giveaway.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown joined the governors of Oregon and Washington in condemning the plan.
“For more than 30 years, our shared coastline has been protected from further drilling, and we’ll do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, shortsighted action,” Brown and Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington said in a statement.
“They’ve chosen to forget the utter devastation of past offshore oil spills to wildlife and to the fishing, recreation and tourism industries in our states,” the governors said. “They’ve chosen to ignore the science that tells us our climate is changing and we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Industry leaders, meanwhile, applauded the opportunity to expand the nation’s energy production at a time when global demand is projected to increase.
“With 94 percent of our nation’s outer continental shelf currently and unnecessarily off limits to oil and gas leasing and exploration, [we] welcome the bold and broad offshore leasing proposal released today,” Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Assn., said in a statement.
The Interior Department plan, he said, requires a lengthy process of environmental review and public comment before any new drilling can begin. “The process involves several rounds of public participation from stakeholders, including local communities,” he said.
The proposed plan for the outer continental shelf calls for 47 lease sales to be scheduled in 25 of 26 areas off the nation’s coastlines between 2019 and 2024.
There are presently 23 oil platforms located in federal waters off California and four in state waters — near Santa Barbara County, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. There are also four artificial islands used as drilling platforms off Long Beach and one off Rincon Beach in Ventura County.
In 1994, the Legislature placed the entire California coast off-limits to new leases.
The proposed federal plan suggests seven new leases in the Pacific region, including two each for Northern, Central and Southern California, as well as one for the area off the Washington and Oregon coast. Twelve leases are nominated for the Gulf of Mexico, and 19 for coastal Alaska.
“This is a start on looking at American energy dominance and looking at our offshore assets and beginning a dialogue of when, how, where and how fast those offshore assets could be or should be developed,” Zinke said in a conference call with reporters.
“Nobody is better at producing clean, quality, responsible energy than the U.S.,” said Zinke.
Nick Lund, the senior manager for landscape conservation at the National Parks Conservation Assn., said the administration faces significant political opposition to the plan from coastal communities in California and other states.
“For the first time in decades, the waters, wildlife and local economies of coastal parks like Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and Channel Islands National Park in California will be at risk to the dangers of drilling,” he said.
California officials have argued that expanding offshore oil production would most likely require the construction of expensive new platforms and onshore support equipment whose presence could harm the state’s multibillion-dollar coastal economy, including tourism, fishing and the marine ecosystem.
Brown in 2016 pushed for a permanent ban on new offshore drilling off the state’s coast, both because of concerns over potential oil spills and reluctance to expand the world’s reliance on fossil fuels in the face of climate change.
But the new plan instead proposes to open almost all of the nation’s potential offshore oil and gas reserves to exploration. The move marks yet another effort to dismantle the Obama administration’s restrictions on energy development, including special protections adopted for offshore areas.
Following the massive BP oil spill related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, the Obama administration set in place a series of offshore leasing moratoriums in the gulf and bans along other coastlines. In March 2016, the administration rescinded drilling leases along the Atlantic Coast. In December 2016, as he was preparing to leave the White House, President Obama withdrew leasing plans for the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.
Nearly all those areas are now back in play, with the exception of the northern Aleutian Islands in Alaska, which are protected under orders from former President George W. Bush. New drilling would be delayed in the eastern Gulf of Mexico until 2023 to comply with existing federal law, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said he has introduced legislation to extend that moratorium to protect Florida’s coast until 2027. Marine sanctuaries also would remain off-limits.
Federal lease sales apply to waters from 3 nautical miles offshore, with some exceptions in Texas and Florida, up to 200 nautical miles offshore.
“This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed for a national outer continental shelf program in the five-year lease schedule,” Zinke said.
The 47 lease sales being proposed, he said, compare with 11 under the Obama administration and 36 under the Carter administration.
Coastal states, especially California, Alaska and Florida, are especially sensitive to proposals to open the offshore seabed to oil and gas exploration because of oil spill risks that are escalating.
A devastating, 100,000-barrel spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 killed thousands of seabirds and led to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the foundation of U.S. environmental law, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The 260,000-barrel Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 exposed thousands of that state’s residents to the beach-fouling consequences of spilled oil. The 4.9-million-barrel Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, stirred new and broad opposition to offshore development.
Almost 50 years after the Santa Barbara spill, which remains the largest in the state’s history, California’s distaste for offshore drilling hasn’t gone away.
“We saw the impacts of that firsthand: oil washing up on the beach with dead seabirds and fish, along with people from the community covered in oil as they tried to save them,” said Kristen Hislop, marine conservation program director with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center. “Additional offshore oil along our coast would surely lead to more spills with similarly devastating impacts to the marine environment.”
A more recent reminder of the environmental perils came in a smaller 2015 oil spill near Refugio State Beach, where a ruptured oil pipeline fouled some of the same coastline.
California has not issued a new offshore oil and gas lease since the Santa Barbara spill. In a July letter to federal officials, the State Lands Commission said new offshore oil development “creates undeniable peril to California’s ocean and marine environment and economy” and poses an unacceptably high risk of “catastrophic harm from an offshore oil spill.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a commission member, has promised that the body will “use every power in its toolbox to ensure that not a drop of oil or gas from new offshore drilling ever makes landfall in California.”
California officials control coastal waters out to 3 miles from the shoreline and have no jurisdiction beyond that. But the state could block new drilling proposals indirectly by rejecting pipelines and other infrastructure needed to transport oil to the shore, which require state approval.
Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said he was evaluating all options to protect the state’s natural resources. “It should be underscored that regulatory agencies in our state will have a say in whether any offshore drilling ultimately does occur,” he said.
The Trump administration’s drilling plan also drew sharp criticism from the state’s congressional delegation.
Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), who also backs a permanent ban on new drilling off the state’s coast, said new offshore exploration poses a serious threat, both in potential environmental damage and effects on tourism.
“The Central Coast knows too well the damage caused by oil spills. Our local economies and fragile ocean ecosystems cannot afford another disastrous spill,” Carbajal said in a statement.
“Californians will never let this happen,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). “This reckless proposal for a new offshore drilling spree should face widespread, bipartisan opposition. We’ll fight them in Congress, on the beaches, in the courts and at the ballot box. I’m confident we’ll defeat this dangerous plan.”
Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott also said the plan to open deep-ocean reserves off his state’s coastline “is something I oppose.” Scott said he requested a meeting with Zinke to “discuss the concerns I have with this plan.”
Though the president and his appointees have spent much of the last year clearing regulatory obstacles and promoting fossil energy production on federal holdings, the results are decidedly mixed. Coal production has ticked up slightly, largely due to a rise in exports. Onshore oil and gas lease auctions on public domain land in the West have stirred some interest in select areas, particularly in Wyoming and New Mexico, but are drawing big yawns from the energy industry in Alaska, Nevada and other states.
The scope of the administration’s offshore drilling proposal is vast. But its potential to actually result in oil exploration and development is not nearly as certain. Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of its Arctic drilling campaign in 2015 after spending $7 billion because of the rising cost, significant public opposition and extreme difficulty of exploring in rough water rife with dangerous ice floes. U.S. oil production reached nearly 10 million barrels a day in October, the highest level since the start of the 1970s. All but 15% was produced onshore.
Zinke late last year put into place a number of steps to make it easier to lease and explore the onshore and offshore oil and gas reserves that are owned and managed by the federal government. One of those steps was reversing safety measures and requirements for installing safety equipment that were put in place by the Obama administration after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting BP oil spill.
Offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico produce about 1.5 million barrels of oil daily, or 15% of total U. S. production.
Follow Keith Schneider, Western environment and public lands correspondent, on Twitter.
4:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about potential impacts on California, plus more California reaction.
1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from an offshore oil industry official.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the three West Coast governors.
1:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information about California’s present offshore drilling activities.
11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details of the proposed leasing plan, as well as initial reaction and analysis.
This article was originally published at 10:20 a.m.
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