California vows to battle plans for offshore drilling

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Commissions that oversee coastal lands and water pushed the Trump administration to leave California out of plans to expand offshore drilling, saying the state will throw up any barriers possible to prevent pumping and transportation of oil.

The warning came weeks after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he wants to open nearly all U.S. coastlines to offshore oil and gas drilling.

Since then, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has proposed six sales of drilling rights off the California coast and a seventh off Oregon and Washington between 2020 and 2023.

“Given how unpopular oil development in coastal waters is in California, it is certain that the state would not approve new pipelines or allow use of existing pipelines to transport oil from new leases onshore,” the State Lands Commission wrote in a letter Wednesday to federal officials.

The commission controls up to 3 miles offshore, at which point federal jurisdiction kicks in. It has not allowed drilling in the state-controlled waters since a 1969 oil spill near Santa Barbara.

State and local governments could also block the construction of helipads and other infrastructure on land needed to support offshore operations.

Laws established in 1980s

In the 1980s, many coastal cities passed ordinances to block such infrastructure when President Ronald Reagan looked to expand offshore drilling. Many of those laws remain in place.

Drillers could find ways around state and local restrictions — such as pumping oil directly onto ships for transport — but the process is expensive and may not be profitable if oil prices remain relatively low.

A separate letter from the California Coastal Commission warned that an oil spill would devastate the state’s tourism economy and coastal beauty.

The letter pointed to the Santa Barbara spill, which caused severe environmental damage, hurt the fishing industry and dissuaded tourists from visiting.

The commission has authority to review activities in federally controlled waters. It can object to the lease of oil exploration and drilling rights, which would trigger a court battle unless the federal government backs down.

“We’ve fought similar efforts before, and we will fight them again,” Coastal Commission Chair Dayna Bochco said.

The state agencies weighed in ahead of a public meeting Thursday in Sacramento, the only opportunity for people to register their opinions in person to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Environmentalists, others rally

Fishermen, environmentalists, surfers and other critics demonstrated outside the state Capitol before marching to the meeting at a nearby library.

Several demonstrators chanted in opposition at the open-house style meeting, where bureau scientists talked one-on-one with visitors and collected written comments.

“Why do we want to let someone start drilling for more oil when we need to be putting money into resources for green economy and green fuel,” said Jim Wilson, a 71-year-old retired mail carrier from Placerville, outside Sacramento.

Earlier in the day, the California Assembly voted overwhelmingly to oppose renewed drilling.

“We are California and we will fight back to protect our beautiful coast,” said Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi of Torrance.

Republicans Randy Voepel of Santee and Travis Allen of Huntington Beach said California can safely harvest oil and gas. Allen, a GOP candidate for governor, said that could help lower gasoline prices.

Most of California’s outer continental shelf — the area that would be opened to drilling — is in shallow water, where operations are not complicated, said Tim Charters, senior director of government and political affairs for the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group for the offshore energy industry.

“It’s critical to keep the dollars at home, create the jobs locally instead of sending the money overseas and creating jobs in foreign places,” he said.

Zinke angered critics when he said drilling off Florida’s coast would remain off limits, prompting California Gov. Jerry Brown and others to request a similar exemption. Regulators later said no final decision had been made about Florida.

On Tuesday, more than 100 demonstrators gathered outside Oregon’s state Capitol in Salem to denounce the proposal. A day later in New Jersey, more than a dozen groups held a rally in the driving rain on the Asbury Park boardwalk to demonstrate their opposition.

Twenty-three meetings are planned nationwide in coastal states. Comments can be submitted online through March 9.

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