CALmatters

Trump administration unveils plan to open California coast to drilling

The Trump administration has begun the process of opening virtually the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, making good on a campaign promise to exploit the country’s troves of offshore energy.

The Interior Department unveiled a five-year plan to establish lease sales in federal waters off the outer continental shelf, including parcels where drilling has been banned for decades. That includes the California coast.

The plan, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, envisions drilling in the Arctic, off the Hawaiian coast and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as expanding existing exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The leasing will begin in 2019 off the north coast of Alaska then move to the lower 48 states, the agency said.

Zinke told reporters on a conference call that the leasing process would expand the country’s energy independence, a policy emphasis that the agency has already made a priority on public lands. “This is the beginning of an opening up,” he said, promising that the months-long public comment period before enactment would include all stakeholders. “The states will have a voice.”

California has already been heard on this topic, loudly and often, and weighed in again today.

Oil platform off the California coast. Image by Wikipedia

“Drilling off the shores of California’s coast is a non-starter,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Our state has banned offshore drilling for a reason: because we don’t want it and because we know what happens when it goes wrong. We are evaluating all of our options to protect our state’s pristine national resources. And it should be underscored that regulatory agencies in our state will have a say in whether any offshore drilling ultimately does occur.”

The last time federal oil leases were offered off California was in 1984, and the region was not included in leasing plans under the Obama administration. There has been no leasing in state waters since 1969. State officials have long sought to permanently ban offshore drilling there.

On one hand, California’s protestations are sound and fury: The state has no jurisdiction over federal waters, which begin three miles off the coast. On the other hand, the state could thwart the intent of the plan by making it more expensive to get the oil to land from offshore rigs.

A bill that would prohibit the State Lands Commission from approving any new infrastructure that supports offshore oil and gas development died in the Legislature last year, but the agency issued a resolution that achieved much the same result.

“California’s door is closed to President Trump’s Pacific oil and gas drilling,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who chairs the Lands Commission and is running for governor, said at the time.

Offshore rigs generally pump crude through submerged pipelines to onshore receiving facilities, joining an extensive network of pipelines that move the oil to storage sites and refineries. While not stopping the drilling outright, the state’s regulations would make it more expensive for companies to operate. That could limit the volume of oil shipped at a time when the low price per barrel is already discouraging new exploration.

Zinke’s announcement came a day after the administration proposed to roll back Obama-era regulations put in place after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 that more strictly regulated offshore drilling operations.

Many Californians still have memories of a massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that despoiled beaches and killed wildlife. The area was hit again in 2015, when a pipeline failure sent more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil onto the beach at Refugio State Park.