GOP majority marks new lineup on State Lands Commission

For the first time in more than three decades, the powerful-but-obscure State Lands Commission has a majority of Republicans or members representing Republicans – a political shift that has drawn new attention to the three-member panel that rides herd over offshore oil drilling and the state’s navigable waterways.

The addition of newly confirmed Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a Republican appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill the vacancy left by Democrat John Garamendi, means the commission will be comprised of  Schwarzenegger’s Finance Department chief, Ana Matosantos, who represents the Republican governor, and Maldonado – and Democratic Controller John Chiang. Republican Cynthia Bryant, sitting in for Matosantos, often handles commission chores for the administration.

The last meeting at which Republicans or their designates dominated the panel was in December 1974, during Ronald Reagan’s final weeks as governor.

When asked if his presence on the commission signaled a change in policy, Maldonado said it was too early to tell.

“But I’ve got my work cut out,” Maldonado said. He noted that he had his first briefing on the commission last week and has yet to attend his first meeting, but he said he already has identified a top priority.

“I’m going to come in as a watchdog for the taxpayer. Hopefully, we can expedite and review some of these laws, making sure that they get the best bang for their buck.”

The difference a Republican makes on a three-member panel can be substantial: In January 2009, Democrats Chiang and Garamendi blocked the Tranquillon Ridge offshore oil drilling project; the lone representative of the governor was outvoted. The project was scuttled. Maldonado has been largely opposed to the project.

But the new lineup may be temporary: A new governor likely will appoint a new Finance Department chief and Maldonado will remain only if he is elected lieutenant governor later this year. The third commission member, Chiang, is probably the most permanent since he is likely to be reelected and retain his position.

But for the next nine months, at least, the commission, which oversees a staff of 200 and a $30 million budget, will be controlled by Republicans. The question is whether Maldonado signals a change in the Lands Commission’s direction. And if so, for how long?

“He (Maldonado) is fairly moderate, and it’s always hard to tell until they actually make decisions,” said Steven Aceti of the California Coastal Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of coastal cities and counties. “He had a fairly moderate record as a legislator, and he’ll probably do the same kind of thing on the lands  commission.”

For now, there is at lease one issue Maldonado won’t have to worry: The $1.8 billion Tranquillon Ridge oil drilling project off the Santa Barbara Coast.

Schwarzenegger has supported the project and fought hard in the Capitol to get it approved, in part because it would bring in about $100 million annually to the state, money that the governor was going to use to help pay for the state parks system.

After the commission rejected it, the governor then tried at least twice to push T-Ridge through the Capitol by removing it from the Commission’s jurisdiction. Both efforts failed.
But this week, Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for T-Ridge, saying that he was inspired to act by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which threatens to spoil hundreds of miles of coastline.

The governor’s move may take Maldonado off the hook – or it may not. Maldonado has said publicly he doesn’t like the project.

“The PXP proposal was turned down, but in the State Lands Commission, you can reapply with the exact same proposal or a modified proposal. PXP could decide to reapply, although given the current climate, you can’t tell,” said Michael Endicott, an advocate for Sierra Club California.

The State Lands Commission is something of an oddity in state government. It was created in 1938, primarily because the state wanted a better way to handle off-shore drilling projects. For much of its bureaucratic life, that’s exactly what it did: Voting records and agendas going back decades are replete with applications for oil-industry projects.

But over time, the frequency of new drilling projects declined as off-shore drilling became increasingly unpopular and after the 1969 oil spill off the Santa Barbara Coast – and because of changes in California policy and laws – they dwindled to virtually zero.

But other issues come before the commission. A liquefied natural gas project – ultimately rejected – drew international attention three years ago. Although much of the property once under the jurisdiction of the State Lands Commission has been sold off over the years, some land remains – including desert property suitable for renewable energy projects.

The commission is wields enormous authority but with a tight focus, and it’s day-to-day actions rarely draw public attention – unlike the Coastal Commission, for example, that although smaller than the State Lands Commission has a much higher public profile. The Lands Commission has authority over tidelands and some wetlands; over piers and wharfs, over state offshore waters and inland navigable waterways, including sloughs and rivers. Want to build a dock for your riverside home in the Little Pocket? Go see the Lands Commission.

Indeed, docks seem to constitute the bulk of the commission’s agenda items, such as a flurry of property owners who want to build or expand their docks in Lake Tahoe.

The petroleum industry appears before the commission, but not for new leases but to renew existing contracts or to alter or expand piers and wharves at oil-offloading facilities. The thrust of the commission – with some high-profile exceptions – is moving away from the touchy subject of offshore leasing.

“Wind and solar are now coming down the pike,” Maldonado said. “It’s very, very important for us an agency and a commission.”

Eds: Corrects spelling and affiliation of Matosantos, who represents the Republican governor on the Lands Commission. Matosantos is a Democrat.

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