Trump Opens the Door to New Offshore Drilling. California Tries to Close It

Platform Holly in the Santa Barbara Channel is pictured near the horizon.
Platform Holly in the Santa Barbara Channel is pictured near the horizon.

California leaders are taking steps to prevent the Trump administration from realizing its dream of a new wave of offshore drilling along the Golden State's coast.

Recently proposed state regulations would essentially block any new offshore oil drilling operations from leasing space in state-controlled waters for pipelines. If successful, the amendments to Senate Bill 188 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara and Senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles could make it difficult for Big Oil to get any offshore-derived crude to the mainland.

But despite Jackson's vow to prevent shipping and processing of oil extracted from the coastline, it would be difficult for California to keep future drilling operations from using tankers to get that product to land, says David Pettit, a senior senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Trump administration's vision of a coastline dotted with more drilling platforms is years away. On Friday Trump signed an executive order to expand offshore oil and gas exploration in the Outer Continental Shelf. California is not named in that order, but Trump directed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review the list of U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries and Monuments, which essentially protects the California coast from new drilling.

"That's how it would go down — if Interior took away monument designations, conceivably those areas could be open to oil drilling," Pettit says.

California controls its first three miles of waters off the coastline, but beyond that distance the feds could create an open season for crude hunting. The proposed changes to Senate Bill 188 — exact language is expected this week — would stop the State Lands Commission from approving new pipeline leases and ban "other infrastructure needed for new or expanded oil and gas development, such as piers and wharves," Senator Jackson said during a teleconference Friday.

"For the sake of our environment, our economy and our quality of life, the door that Trump wants to open to more offshore oil and gas drilling, we will close shut — right at the three-mile mark where our state waters and state jurisdiction begins," she said.

A joint statement crafted by the governors of California, Oregon and Washington called Trump's action "short-sighted." In his own statement, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom raised the idea of a state blockade of drilling pipelines even without the new legislative language from Jackson and de León. "The State Lands Commission, which manages or has oversight of all submerged lands along California's entire coastline, is unequivocally resolved to create an environmental rampart along California's coast," he said.

Indeed, Pettit says that the governor's office probably could block pipeline building on its own. But he said having a law on the books "would help if this ended up in court." And if the day comes for groundbreaking on new oil drilling off the California coast, the matter would likely result in U.S.-versus-California litigation, the attorney says.

Trump says his plan for more oil exploration will create jobs. "Today we're unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs," he said Friday.

California leaders and environmentalists, who often point out that clean energy is doing some hiring of its own, are mostly concerned about the possibility of future oil spills — not to mention the specter of a coastal view photobombed by steel structures. The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, which saw 100,000 barrels of crude flow into the Santa Barbara Channel after a well in federal waters failed, helped to spark the contemporary environmental movement and was a leading factor in the establishment of Earth Day. "We can't forget that," Jackson said during the teleconference.

De León argued during the same call that "the state’s $45 billion ocean economy" would be affected if more unsightly drilling is allowed off the coast.

According to the NRDC, "There has been no new or expanded leasing to oil companies in state waters since 1969, after the infamous Santa Barbara oil spill. In federal waters off California, there have been no new leases since 1984."

Pettit says the possibility of new drilling is years away. But that doesn't mean California shouldn't act now. "It's not an immediate threat in the sense we're not going to see new oil drilling off the coast of Malibu tomorrow," he says. "But we need to stay vigilant."


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