JANE KAY, San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 2009
The U.S. Interior Department, acting in President Bush’s final days in office, proposed on Friday opening up 130 million acres off of California’s coast to drilling for oil and natural gas, including areas off Humboldt and Mendocino counties and from San Luis Obispo south to San Diego.
After a hands-off policy for a quarter-century, the administration submitted plans to sell oil and gas leases for most of the U.S. coast, from the Gulf of Maine to Chesapeake Bay and the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Coast.
New drilling also was proposed in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, one of the nation’s most plentiful sources of fish, and the Arctic Ocean.
Washington, Oregon and protected parts of Florida were excluded along with waters off San Francisco Bay that lie within national marine sanctuaries.
On Friday, the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups greeted the news with praise, saying it is time for domestic energy supplies to be released from the moratorium.
But environmental groups and some Democratic leaders who oppose California drilling criticized the 11th-hour move, vowing to work with the Obama administration to promote energy independence based on clean, renewable technologies.
“President Bush’s last-ditch effort to open our coasts to new drilling is nothing more than a parting gift to his buddies in the oil and gas industry,” said Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the platform blowout that spilled 3 million gallons of black crude oil on 35 miles of beaches around Santa Barbara, Capps said, “New offshore drilling would not lower gas prices, make us more energy independent or get our economy back on track.”
Richard Charter, a longtime environmental lobbyist who now works for the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, called the government’s move “an extremist act.”
“What we see today is the political equivalent of a rock star trashing the hotel room right before checkout,” he said.
The Interior Department used a lapse in the congressional moratorium in October and a cancellation of a presidential prohibition in July to set in motion the lease-sale program – which the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama could cancel or proceed with.
Obama has said he would consider some offshore oil drilling as part of a comprehensive energy plan. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Obama’s pick for interior secretary, hasn’t given his views on offshore drilling in California. He said in his confirmation hearings Thursday that he will confer with the administration’s team.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with the governors of Oregon and Washington, opposes new offshore oil drilling despite the new revenue it would offer the cash-strapped state.
The federal government has failed to make a case for a new program because energy resources are insignificant in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico, already-sold leases aren’t being used, and no protections are in place to protect the environment, the governors said.
In Friday’s announcement, Interior Department officials proposed three new lease sales, one in Northern California and two in Southern California in “areas with known hydrocarbon potential.” The proposals, which were based on requests from seven oil companies that weren’t named, would include:
— As many as 44 million acres of federal waters, which start 3 miles from the shoreline, off Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
— As many as 89 million acres off of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties. One lease would require equipment operating at a diagonal to drill within the Santa Barbara Ecological Preserve. In Southern California, there are 79 existing leases with 43 producing and 36 undeveloped.
There will be a 60-day comment period, with hearings in Ukiah, Fort Bragg, Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Diego. Dates for the hearings have not been announced.
If sales are allowed, they could occur as soon as 2014.
About 60% of California citizens who commented on new oil-and-gas development were opposed to new drilling, according to the Interior Department’s oil-drilling agency, the Minerals Management Service.