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California vs. the feds over offshore drilling

A tanker passes by two oil exploration rigs off the coast of Huntington Beach. (Photo: Ana Phelps)

The rubber is hitting the road, the gloves are coming off and California leaders are suiting up for battle. At least, figuratively.

When the Trump Administration announced that it would commence offshore oil drilling across all national waters — including six locations in California — federal agencies struck against decades of bipartisan environmental policy in California.

“Presumably the state, acting through the State Lands Commission, could say ‘No, we’re not going to grant you permission build a pipeline, to build a processing facility on the coast.'” — Richard Frank

California leaders including Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Beccera are already planning their next move.

On Jan. 9, Becerra called out Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Twitter after it was announced that Florida would be removed from the federal offshore drilling plan with respect to its coastal tourism industry and “local voice.”

“If that’s your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately,” Becerra tweeted.

Across the country, not every state opposed the federal plan.

“Because the proposal would not introduce drilling to the Mississippi Sound, and would limit it and similar activity to waters south of the Barrier Islands, he will not seek an exemption,” said a statement from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s office.  “The revenue from the leases would be helpful in funding things like education, health care and infrastructure.”

But in California, the official mood was much different.

The federal government is eyeing two drilling locations on each of the coastal areas of northern, central, and southern California for the first offshore oil and gas development in decades.

The California opposition to federal policies over oil exploration and environmental regulation is already shaping up as a major legal battleground between the state and the Trump administration. Through December, Becerra had filed more than two-dozen suits involving the federal rules.

The controversy arises out of those three miles of state-owned waters, as the state can control pipelines, transportation of materials, terminals, and refineries built in coastal areas.

“This is the meat-ax approach saying everything is fair game … The scope of this is very stunning,” said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center, referring to the Trump administration proposals. He noted that the federal actions upend policies dating back to Bill Clinton’s administration.

The recently drafted Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing proposal would stake out federally-owned oceans for new off-shore gas and oil drilling. California has control over the first three miles west from the coast, and the federally-owned Outer Continental Shelf includes waters up to three miles out from that line.

The controversy arises out of those three miles of state-owned waters, as the state can control pipelines, transportation of materials, terminals, and refineries built in coastal areas.

“Presumably the state, acting through the State Lands Commission, could say ‘No, we’re not going to grant you permission build a pipeline, to build a processing facility on the coast,'” Frank said.

The bullet doesn’t stop there, though. The federal government could seek to use the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause to create a regulatory framework that would override California law.

The state, meanwhile, may also look to the Coastal Zone Management Act, a federal document dating back to 1978 that cedes a certain amount of federal authority to coastal states.

Under that document, the federal government can’t go forward with development projects that could significantly affect state lands and state coastal regions without giving the state an opportunity for consistency review.

The bill, SB 834, would ban new leases for pipelines, piers, wharves, and other infrastructure intended for oil and gas development terminals within California’s waters.

The Secretary of Commerce, however, could veto the consistency review’s findings, in attempt to override California.

“It’s not an ironclad veto. The Secretary of Commerce can override the state’s consistency review,” Frank said. “I have little doubt that in this administration … that the Commerce Secretary would issue that veto.”

This could eventually lead to a Supreme Court battle, unless Congress sets a different direction for offshore drilling. President Ronald Reagan in pursued a similar policy 1984, leading to a Supreme Court battle that rejected California’s attempt to veto new offshore drilling plans.

In the meantime, Democratic state Sens. Hannah-Beth Jackson of  Santa Barbara and Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, are reintroducing legislation to ban new offshore oil drilling infrastructure on California’s coasts.

Lease renewals and extensions that would support oil production, transportation, or processing would also be banned.

The bill, SB 834, would ban new leases for pipelines, piers, wharves, and other infrastructure intended for oil and gas development terminals within California’s waters.

The petroleum industry believes offshore drilling can be done safely, in part because of extensive research and modern technology.

California’s legal opposition “will not reduce demand in California, it will simply widen the gap between our ability to meet our own energy needs safely and reliably, and our every-increasing dependence on foreign imports,” Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said in a December statement.

Lease renewals and extensions that would support oil production, transportation, or processing would also be banned. Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) is authoring a companion bill, AB 1775.

The bill is a reincarnation of SB 188, which proposed similar measures in reaction to the president’s announcements in April 2017 about a planned executive order to spur offshore oil and gas leasing in federal waters.

The state also owns four offshore oil platforms from Santa Barbara to Huntington Beach. Federal waters outside of California contain 23 offshore platforms.

SB 188 died last September, when it was held in the California Assembly Appropriations Committee after significant pushback from the oil industry and late-opposition from the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

California has been steadily phasing out offshore oil and gas agreements since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, one of the first televised oil disasters of its kind and an event that is credited with starting the modern environmental movement.

Out of 60 state offshore oil and gas agreements, 26 remain active, according to data from the State Lands Commission.

The state also owns four offshore oil platforms from Santa Barbara to Huntington Beach. Federal waters outside of California contain 23 offshore platforms.

The offshore drilling announcement saw a combined opposition from Gov. Jerry Brown, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. In a joint statement, they declared:

“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. They’ve chosen to ignore the science that tells us our climate is changing and we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But we won’t forget history or ignore science.

“For more than 30 years, our shared coastline has been protected from further federal drilling and we’ll do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action.”

The proposal would not see offshore development leases in action until 2020. The timeline for the program suggests developing sites in Southern California in 2020 and 2022, and sites inn Central and Northern California in 2021 and 2023.


  • Barbara Ferguson

    Don’t forget irradiated flotsam from Japan. Why keep polluting our international waters.

  • John Williams

    Liberals…always living in the past. So “progressive”!

  • redhorse1969

    lock down kilafornia the commie state.

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