Reviving a half-century battle over offshore oil drilling in California, the Trump administration’s blanket approach to a bedrock environmental issue has put a bulwark against oil wells off the North Coast in jeopardy. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s proposal to sell oil and natural gas development rights in every ocean that touches the United States includes Sonoma and Mendocino county waters — a coastal region that has just 5 percent of the nation’s untapped offshore oil reserves.
The plan to open 90 percent of the country’s 1.7 billion offshore acres to oil exploration and drilling aroused widespread opposition from governors, senators, state and local officials and environmentalists, who became increasingly angry after Zinke this week exempted Florida from the plan for what appeared to be a political consideration.
In California, a state estranged from expanded offshore oil extraction since the calamitous Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, the new five-year drilling plan — an outgrowth of President Donald Trump’s “America-First” energy strategy announced in April — provoked virtually unanimous dissent. “This is the most outrageous proposal we’ve seen in 40 years,” said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a veteran anti-drilling advocate.
Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, all Democrats, railed against the plan and pledged to apply political and legal pressures to thwart it. A Public Policy Institute of California poll finding that a record low 25 percent of California adults favored more offshore oil drilling, while a record high 69 percent opposed it, suggested the politicians were in line with residents who treasure the state’s 1,270-mile shoreline.
On the North Coast, drilling foes were rattled by uncertainty over the future of two national marine sanctuaries that prohibit drilling in 4,600 square miles of ocean — an area nearly as large as Sonoma and Mendocino counties combined. The White House has a hole card in the form of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ review of additions to marine sanctuaries and monuments since 2007, including consideration of the foregone cost of “potential energy and mineral exploration” in federal offshore waters.
Ross submitted his report — another element of the Trump energy policy — in October, but no one outside the administration has seen it or knows whether it calls for rescinding an expansion in 2015 that more than doubled the size of the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries, extending their protective boundaries 60 miles north from Bodega Head to Point Arena in Mendocino County. That stretch of scenic coast “is in limbo,” Charter said, until Ross’ recommendations are revealed.
Heightening the stakes, the sanctuaries overlay and put off-limits to drilling parts of two oil basins hugging the shoreline of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the likeliest local targets for exploration should the oil industry show interest in the rugged coastline far removed from any energy infrastructure.
Zinke’s plan, released 10 days ago, is the first step toward a new National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which would eventually supplant a five-year plan established by the Obama administration.
The Obama plan for 2017-2022 rankled oil patch Republicans and the oil industry by limiting new lease sales — granting permanent rights to offshore energy development — to only 10 auctions in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Zinke’s drilling plan, the most expansive ever, includes 47 potential lease sales in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, with six along California’s coast.
“It doesn’t make sense when you have a clean-coast economy,” Charter said, referring to the economic value of tourism, fishing and other coastal industries estimated at $40 billion. The plan, intended for final approval by the end of 2019, “sent anti-oil advocates into a tizzy,” he said. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said the plan represented “the worst-case scenario” of a wide-open invitation to the powerful oil industry.
“This is a bad ventriloquist act: When the Trump administration is talking you can actually see the oil lobby’s lips moving,” said Huffman, who represents the entire North Coast and serves on the House Natural Resources Committee. Last week, the committee approved by voice vote — with Huffman opposed — a bill called the “Streamlining Environmental Approvals (SEA) Act” and backed by nine Republicans from Southern states.
The committee’s Democratic staff report said the measure “would gut core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to expedite seismic airgun blasting and other industrial activities in the ocean that can harm marine mammals.” Government estimates of the nation’s untapped offshore oil reserves are based on seismic tests done in the 1960s, and new tests would be the industry’s first order of business under the new drilling plan.
Trump’s “America-First” energy policy, which advocates boosting oil lease sales “to the maximum extent permitted by law,” also calls for a “streamlined permitting approach” for seismic research. Critics point to the government estimate that the two oil lease planning areas stretching from Monterey County to the Oregon border have an estimated 3.42 billion barrels of untapped oil, assuming a crude oil price of $100 a barrel.
That’s enough to cover the nation’s consumption of 15 million barrels of oil a day for about seven months. “We are the tail not even wagging the dog,” Charter said. The Gulf of Mexico, which produces 17 percent of U.S. crude oil, holds more than half of all untapped offshore oil reserves, which total 61 billion barrels of oil, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Justin Devery, a Houston-based oil industry analyst for IHS Markit, said there’s little chance oil developers will enter California’s North Coast, considering the political opposition, lack of facilities and, primarily, the persistent weak price for crude oil, currently in the $60 a barrel range. “They’re looking for prospects that put money in the bank quickly,” he said.
The North Coast is an oil-drilling “frontier,” where investments would take years to pay off, Devery said. As oil prices rise, drillers are motivated to pursue “marginal reserves,” he said. But Devery balked at estimating when crude oil might return to the $100 a barrel range it last hit in mid-2004. “I wouldn’t even broach that,” he said. Oil leases, however, are a commodity that investors often buy on speculation in hopes of rising prices and can hold indefinitely without added cost.
Meanwhile, California’s stance on drilling is motivated by vivid memories of the Santa Barbara oil spill, a blowout on an offshore platform that spewed an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, creating an oil slick 35 miles long along the coast and killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.
“The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people,” then-President Richard Nixon said while touring the polluted Santa Barbara Channel. The spill is considered one of the triggers of the modern environmental movement. California hasn’t issued a new oil lease in state waters since 1969, and no new federal leases in waters beyond the 3-mile limit have been authorized since 1984.
The last drilling proposal on the North Coast earned a place in local lore when 2,000 protesters overwhelmed an Interior Department public hearing in Fort Bragg, quashing Lease Sale 91 in 1988. State and local officials are now motivated to continue the freeze. Gov. Brown joined his counterparts in Oregon and Washington in condemning the Trump leasing plan, saying they will “do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action.”
Harris and Feinstein joined 35 other Democratic senators in a letter to Zinke accusing him of “needlessly put(ting) our coastal residents, businesses, oceans and climate at grave risk.” Feinstein also called on all 58 county boards of supervisors to adopt resolutions opposing new offshore oil drilling, a step Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she is planning to take. “The federal government wants to shove this down our throat,” said Hopkins, whose district includes the entire county coast. “It’s an incredible caving in to corporate interests. You’re putting profit over people.”
Hopkins said she intends to place a resolution on the board’s Jan. 23 agenda. Sonoma County has no control over the ocean but has a law — promulgated by anti-drilling activists years ago — requiring that any proposal for an onshore oil-related facility be put to a public vote. The California Coastal Commission has, under federal law, the authority to review oil lease sales for compliance with state policies and negotiate any disagreements with the feds.
The commission cannot block a lease sale, but if it cannot reach an agreement with the Interior Department it can take the matter to court, said Mark Delaplaine, the commission’s federal consistency supervisor. “Nothing galvanizes bipartisan resistance in California like the threat of more offshore oil drilling,” said Dayna Bochco, the commission chairwoman. “We need to pursue a clean-energy future, and this proposed plan will set the country on exactly the wrong course.” “We’ve fought similar efforts before, and we will fight them again,” she said.
Ready for a fight
Environmental organizations are also ready to resist Zinke’s plan. Sandy Aylesworth, an oceans advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it is “an abrupt departure from the way this country needs to go in transitioning from fossil fuels and blatantly disregards the millions of people who oppose expanded oil and gas drilling which directly threatens their livelihood.”
Asked if the NRDC, a nonprofit that operates on a $140 million annual budget, would take the government to court, Aylesworth said that “enforcing federal laws to protect the public interest in places like California is at the heart of NRDC’s mission.”
Niel Lawrence, NRDC’s Alaska director and a senior attorney, said Zinke’s abrupt decision to exempt Florida from offshore drilling — announced on Twitter — violated federal law requiring such actions to be taken “after public comment and review of environmental consequences.” It also fell short of the legal standard that any federal agency decision “must have a minimally rational basis that is unambiguously articulated and supported by a record.”
The American Petroleum Institute, which had initially hailed Zinke’s proposal, also chafed at the Florida exemption. “The Gulf of Mexico is the backbone of our nation’s offshore energy production and restricting access to the Eastern Gulf puts hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk across the country and along the Gulf Coast, particularly in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi,” API President Jack Gerard said in a statement.
On the day Zinke released his proposal, Erik Milito, API’s upstream director, called it “an important step towards harnessing our nation’s energy potential for the benefit of American energy consumers.” Critics said the Florida action tended to expose Zinke’s decision-making as “arbitrary and capricious,” a potentially damaging claim to make in a lawsuit.
Huffman, a former environmental attorney, said the decision — made in response to request from Florida Gov. Rick Scott — exposed the decision as “purely political.” Scott, a Republican, is considering a challenge this year against Florida’s Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, an offshore oil-drilling opponent. “We’re all suing,” Huffman said. “I promise you my name will be on a pleading.”
The proposed lease sales in Northern and Central California aren’t scheduled until 2021 and 2023, and litigation could delay the entire plan indefinitely. But if oil rigs ever make their way to the North Coast, they would become a visible part of the seascape that features thundering surf, dramatic sunsets and migrating whales.
The industry’s longtime targets are from Bodega Bay to Jenner and at The Sea Ranch in Sonoma County, tapping the offshore Bodega Basin with an estimated 1.25 billion barrels of oil. Little River, the village of Mendocino and Fort Bragg in Mendocino County adjoin the Point Arena Basin, which holds an estimated 1.3 billion barrels of crude stored in rocks below the sea floor.
Because the continental shelf is so narrow along the coast, oil wells would be drilled close to the 3-mile limit that marks the beginning of federal waters, Charter said. To a person standing on a coastal bluff, the horizon is 15 miles out, he said.