SAN FRANCISCO - The federal government is taking steps that
may open California's fabled coast to oil drilling in as few as three
years, an action that could place dozens of platforms off the Sonoma,
Mendocino and Humboldt coasts, and raises the specter of spills, air
pollution and increased ship traffic into San Francisco Bay.
Millions of acres of oil deposits, mapped in the 1980s when
then-Interior Secretary James Watt and Energy Secretary Donald Hodel
pushed for California exploration, lie a few miles from the forested
North Coast and near the mouth of the Russian River, as well as off
Malibu, Santa Monica and La Jolla in Southern California.
"These are the targets," said Richard Charter, a lobbyist for the
Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund who worked for three decades to win
congressional bans on offshore drilling. "You couldn't design a better
formula to create adverse impacts on California's coastal-dependent
The bans that protected both of the nation's coasts beginning in
1981, from California to the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic Coast
and the Straits of Florida, ended this year when Congress let the
President-elect Barack Obama hasn't said whether he would overturn
President Bush's lifting last summer of the ban on drilling, as gas
prices reached a historic high. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Col., Obama's pick
as interior secretary and head of the nation's ocean-drilling agency,
hasn't said what he would do in coastal waters.
The Interior Department has moved to open some or all federal
waters, which begin 3 miles from shore and are outside state control,
for exploration as early as 2010. Rigs could go up in 2012.
National marine sanctuaries off San Francisco and Monterey bays are
off-limits in California. Areas open to drilling extend from Bodega Bay
north to the Oregon border and from Morro Bay south to the U.S.-Mexico
Drilling foes say the impacts of explosive blasts from seismic air
guns that map rock formations, increased vessel traffic and oil spills
should be enough to persuade federal agencies to thwart petroleum
exploration. California's treasured coast, with its migrating whales,
millions of seabirds, sea otters, fish and crab feeding grounds,
beaches and tidal waters, are at risk, Charter and other opponents say.
According to the Interior Department, coastal areas nationwide that
were affected by the drilling ban contain 18 billion barrels of oil and
76 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in what the agency called
yet-to-be-discovered fields. The estimates are conservative and are
based on seismic surveys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the
moratorium went into effect.
The agency's last estimate puts about 10 billion barrels in
California, enough to supply the nation for 17 months. That breaks down
to 2.1 billion barrels from Point Arena in Mendocino County to the
Oregon border, 2.3 billion from Point Arena south to San Luis Obispo
County and 5.6 billion between there and Mexico.
"If you were allowed to go out and do new exploration, those numbers
could go up or down. In most cases, you would expect them to go up,"
said Dave Smith, deputy communications officer of the Interior
Department's Minerals Management Service, which oversees energy
development in federal waters.
In California, any exploration and drilling would be close to shore,
experts say. In contrast to the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling could
occur in waters 10,000 feet deep, California's holdings lie on its
narrow, shallow continental shelf, the underwater edge of land where
creatures died over the millennia to produce the oil.
If the Interior Department decides to explore off California's
coast, it could probably do so, some attorneys say. If a state objects
to a lease plan, the president has the final say.
Once an area has been leased, the California Coastal Commission may
review an oil company's plan to explore or extract resources to assess
if it is consistent with the state's coastal management program.
Conflicts can end up in court, said Alison Dettmer, the commission's
Californians have generally opposed drilling since a platform
blowout in 1969 splashed 3 million gallons of black, gooey crude oil on
35 miles of beaches around Santa Barbara, killing otters and seabirds.
The destruction of shoreline and wildlife sparked activism and led to
the creation of the Coastal Commission.
But when gas prices peaked a few months ago amid cries of "drill,
baby, drill" at rallies for GOP presidential candidate John McCain and
running mate Sarah Palin, 51 percent of Californians said they favored
more offshore drilling, according to a survey by the Public Policy
Institute of California.
In July, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne jump-started the
development of a new oil and natural gas leasing program and pushed up
possible new coastal activity by two years.
The Interior Department is reviewing comments about which coastal
areas to include in the next five-year leasing plan. Oil companies want
all of the nation's coastal areas open and say they can produce oil
offshore in a way that protects the environment. Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, who opposes new offshore development, has offered
comments, as have environmental groups.
Obama's energy plans
Obama's administration and Congress will have the final say over
which regions, if any, would be put up for possible lease sales. In
Congress earlier this year, Salazar, Obama's nominee for interior
secretary, supported a bipartisan bill allowing exploration and
production 50 miles out from the southern Atlantic coast with state
approval. The bill died.
"We've been encouraged that the president-elect has chosen Sen.
Salazar," said Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources with the
Independent Petroleum Association of America, a group with 5,000
members that drill 90 percent of the oil and natural gas wells in the
United States. "He's from the West, and he understands federal land
policy, which is really key."
During this year's presidential campaign, Obama was bombarded by
questions about high gas prices and said new domestic drilling wouldn't
do much to lower gasoline prices but could have a place in a
comprehensive energy program.
After introducing his green team of environment and energy chiefs
recently, Obama said the foundation of the nation's energy independence
lies in the "power of wind and solar, in new crops and new
technologies, in the innovation of our scientists and entrepreneurs and
the dedication and skill of our workforce."
He spoke of moving "beyond our oil addiction," creating "a new,
hybrid economy" and investing in "renewable energy that will give life
to new businesses and industries."
Obama didn't mention oil drilling. When a reporter asked him if he
would reinstate the moratorium, he said he wasn't happy that the
moratorium was allowed to lapse in Congress without a broader thought
to how the country was going to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
He reiterated his campaign position that he was open to the idea of
offshore drilling if it was part of a comprehensive package, adding
that he would turn over the question to his team.
In the 1970s and 1980s, before the moratorium on offshore drilling
fully took effect, the federal government produced a series of maps
showing areas in California of prospective interest to the oil
industry. Those maps offer clues to where oil companies would bid if
they had the opportunity.
The last proposed lease sale in 1987, thwarted by the moratorium,
would have opened 6.5 million acres off the North Coast. Off Mendocino
and Humboldt counties, the tracts for sale lay from 3 to 27 miles
offshore, and some of the 24 planned platforms, some of them 300 feet
tall and each with dozens of wells, would have been visible from land.
Tourism and commercial fisheries would have been affected, according
to an environmental review then, while as many as 240 new oil tanker
trips from Fort Bragg and Eureka to San Francisco Bay refineries were
predicted under the full development scenario. The probability of one
or more spills occurring would be 94 percent for accidents involving
1,000 barrels or more, according to documents.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, a member of the House Natural
Resources Committee, recently said oil drilling will be part of a
comprehensive energy policy focusing on renewable sources, but she
would like to see drilling occur only on land and in the Gulf of Mexico
where infrastructure is in place.
Capps well remembers the Santa Barbara spill almost 40 years ago.
"I was living in Goleta. I just had two children, and my husband was
a young professor at UC Santa Barbara. It was a devastating
experience," she said. "The birds and other animals got trapped in the
oil. So many people waded out in boots just inch by inch trying to
rescue our wildlife. It ruined our tourism for many years.
"I think about it all the time, especially last week when we had had
a spill at the same platform. It was a small spill, 1,000 gallons, but
it was a wake-up call."