The Offshore Drilling Debate

July 1, 2006

With our strong state Coastal Commission, major public support for ocean protection, and thousands of square miles protected in marine reserves, California’s bountiful coastal waters might seem amply protected from major industrial uses like offshore oil drilling. But a bill that would allow individual states to opt out of a ban on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf was overwhelmingly approved by the House Resources Committee on June 21. Currently, federal moratoriums prevent offshore drilling in specific areas from the states’ seaward boundary of three miles to 200 miles within the U.S. exclusive economic zone.

In his statement before the committee voted, Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, likened federal OCS policies to timber resource policies. In his speech posted on the Internet, he stated that since the 1980s, U.S. timber production declined, causing the closure of hundreds of mills, and the loss of at least 300,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the nation’s forestry stocks have doubled and foreign imports have outpaced domestic production.

“The all-or-nothing, lock-it-away, look-but-don’t-touch underpinnings of these policies have resulted in just such a scenario,” Pombo said, “America’s abundant resources have been kept under lock and key, jobs and economic security have been exported, and to date Congress has been unwilling to look at—let alone touch—the policies that are shooting this country in its collective foot.”

But, unlike forestry stocks, oil and natural gas reserves are not renewable resources, at least within a human timescale. No one knows how much oil lies under the California coast, since no exploratory drilling has occurred for more than two decades under the moratorium. But, if oil were discovered today in Mendocino County, it would likely take 10 years to bring to market oil that would last 30 days at the current consumption rate, said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy.

“We can meet our energy needs faster, safer, and cheaper with energy conservation than auctioning our ocean heritage to the oil industry and putting our coastline at risk from massive oil spills,” Chabot said.

Pombo’s Deep Ocean Energy Resources (DOER) Act will go to the full House as early as the week of June 26. It would ban offshore drilling within 50 miles of shore unless states opt out and allow the sale of leases. States would share a portion of the federal receipts, getting as much as 75 percent depending on the proximity of the projects to the shore—a strong incentive for Gulf Coast states hard pressed to rebuild their hurricane-damaged industry and infrastructure.

From 50 to 100 miles, no ban would exist unless states “opt in” and prohibit oil and natural gas drilling. Both the state legislature and governor must renew the prohibition every three to five years. No ban would exist for drilling in areas beyond 100 miles.

The legislation codifies the potential expansion of offshore drilling into areas tenuously protected by a congressional moratorium passed in 1982. Each year as Congress enacts a new appropriations bill, the Department of the Interior is prevented from spending appropriated funds for leasing. Last May, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the appropriations bill by a vote of 217-203.

If the annual renewal does not occur or the DOER Act becomes law, the department could sell leases along the Mendocino Coast, Santa Monica Bay, San Diego, Acadia National Park in Maine, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and the Florida Gulf Coast, says Richard Charter, environmental advocate for Environmental Defense. Former President George H.W. Bush created an additional moratorium in 1991. The Executive Outer Continental Shelf Deferral prohibited leasing until 2002. Former President Clinton extended the deferral to 2011. President George W. Bush has said he would not reverse the executive order.

The DOER Act received strong support from the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. It passed in the House Resources Committee by a vote of 29-9.

However, it has raised concerns in California. The bill will expose the Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt coast, as well as Orange and San Diego counties, to lease sales by the Department of the Interior. The State Lands Commission has adopted four resolutions in recent years against new offshore leases, and will likely pass another one at a meeting scheduled on June 26, said Executive Officer Paul Thayer. Currently, California has 79 leases, developed and undeveloped, and all located in the southern half of the state.

“The commission has raised multiple objections,” Thayer said. “There is the potential for oil spills and industrial wastes from offshore activities. The coast is vital to California. Most people enjoy the recreation and coastal economy. Species depend on a clean coast. For these reasons, the commission is against any weakening of the moratorium.”

— Lourdes Sian

Offshore Drilling Web Links

Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association Action Page

Sierra Club Coastal Action Page

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