Closing a Sanctuary Act loophole

An oil-drilling platform off California's southern coast. (Photo: Theo Fitzhugh)

Forty-five years ago, 100,000 barrels of crude oil fouled more than 39 miles of the California coastline from Ventura to Goleta, just west of Santa Barbara. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was the first offshore disaster of its kind, predating the Exxon Valdez and the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophes and illustrating the enormity of the risk we take when we permit offshore drilling.

In recent years, oil and gas developers have been agitating for the first new lease for off-shore drilling in California waters since before the Santa Barbara oil spill. And where the project would be located? You guessed it: just miles from the site of the 1969 disaster in Santa Barbara County.

The sight of gallons of oil washing onto Santa Barbara’s shores grabbed the nation’s attention, and that oil spill is largely credited with sparking the American environmental movement. Thousands of shorebirds and hundreds marine mammals were poisoned or suffocated by the slick. The spill presented Californians with a choice: support private oil interests or protect the fragile marine ecosystem that thrives along our coastline.

For the most part, California has erred on the side of caution since that time. We established the California Coastal Commission in 1972 by voter initiative to provide greater oversight of coastal development. And in 1994, the California legislature passed the Coastal Sanctuary Act, which banned offshore drilling in state waters in most of the state. But the way the Act was drafted, it created a loophole that makes it possible to start new offshore drilling in one place only in California: Tranquillion Ridge in Santa Barbara County.

In June of this year, all three west coast governors wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell urging her to deny new offshore oil and gas leases through 2022.

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who represents Santa Barbara, has put forth a bill to protect the Santa Barbara coastline once and for all. SB 1096 would close the loophole in the Coastal Sanctuary Act that would allow new drilling in one of the state’s most sensitive coastal regions.

Tranquillion Ridge is located within the Vandenberg State Marine Reserve. Identified as a Marine Protected Area – a designation that results in restrictions on fishing and other activities – it is one of five locations in the world recognized for its extraordinarily diverse marine life. It supports a myriad of sea creatures, harbor seals, sea otters, the endangered California least tern and various other birds that are “species of concern,” meaning they are one step away from state and/or federal protection.

If you’ve never ventured below the waves off of California’s shores, it’s hard to envision the deep sea kelp beds that are thick with life. And while it is mainly marine biologists who peer through microscopes at the plankton and fish larvae that litter Purisma Point, which juts into the sea from Vandenberg Air Force Base, we can all imagine the complex food web these tiny organisms support, from endangered black abalone to schools of dolphins.

In June of this year, all three west coast governors wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell urging her to deny new offshore oil and gas leases through 2022.  Governors Brown, Inslee and Kitzhaber cited the many ways our coastlines provide value. Commercial fishing, tourism and recreational activities were all mentioned as important economic engines for the region.

Even more significantly, the letter notes that California, Oregon and Washington are all deeply committed to taking steps toward a truly sustainable energy economy. They rightly note the need for our country to move away from the boom-and-bust economic cycle associated with fossil fuel-based energy production and toward energy sources that work in concert with the natural world, not against it.

Our oceans face tremendous threats, many of which are just beginning to surface as the first hints of climate change take hold. Ocean acidification is putting sea creatures like sea stars in mortal danger. Warming seas may shift migration patterns for fish and other wildlife, and sea level rise will test humanity’s engineering acumen as the ocean begins to press into our coastal cities, towns and infrastructure.

And our coastline infuses billions of tourism, hospitality, fishing and other dollars into our local economies. Putting an end to the possibility of new offshore drilling will have a negligible impact on the price at the pump, but will safeguard these vital coastal jobs.

For all of these reasons, it’s time for the legislature to finish what it started and end new offshore oil and gas leasing. It’s too late for us to claim ignorance over the consequences of our actions. We already know what’s at stake.

Please join me in urging California’s Senators and Assemblymembers to follow the fine example set by Governor Brown and reaffirm California’s commitment to our coastlines. Pass SB 1096 and protect this high-value resource from short-term profiteers once and for all.

Ed’s Note: Actor Ted Danson is a board member of Oceana and co-author of the book Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans And What We Can Do To Save Them.


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