California vows to fight Trump's offshore drilling plan

President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting alongside Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke (L), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd L), Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (2nd R) and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (R) on Dec. 20, 2017.
President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting alongside Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke (L), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (2nd L), Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (2nd R) and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (R) on Dec. 20, 2017.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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California Gov. Jerry Brown and other West Coast governors say the Trump administration's opening of federal waters to offshore drilling, including those off the California coast, is "reckless and short-sighted."

In a statement Thursday, the Democratic leaders of California, Oregon and Washington pledged to do "whatever it takes" to stop the move. The condemnation follows the U.S. Interior Department's announced plan to open most of the U.S. coast to oil leases in federal waters.

Political and public opposition to offshore drilling runs strong in the state. California was the site of the first offshore drilling in the U.S. more than 120 years ago, but the region was tarnished by one of the worst spills in U.S. history in 1969, when more than 3 million gallons of oil poured into the ocean near Santa Barbara.

Thousands of sea birds were killed, along with dolphins, elephant seals and sea lions. Virtually all commercial fishing near Santa Barbara was halted, and tourism dropped dramatically.

Public outrage generated by the spill helped spark the modern environmental movement, and no federal leases have been granted off the California coast since 1984. Today, 69 percent of Californians oppose offshore drilling, according to a 2017 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. Drilling state coastal waters has been banned since 1994.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the plan Thursday, saying that responsible development of offshore energy resources would boost jobs and economic security while providing billions of dollars to fund conservation along U.S. coastlines. The proposal follows President Donald Trump's executive order in April encouraging more drilling rights in federal waters, part of the administration's strategy to help the U.S. achieve "energy dominance" in the global market.

The five-year plan would open 90 percent of the nation's offshore reserves to development by private companies, Zinke said, with 47 leases proposed off the nation's coastlines between 2019 and 2024 — including six off California's coast. The first lease sale for Southern California would be scheduled for 2020.

"This is a draft program," Zinke said in a conference call with reporters. "Nothing is final yet, and our department is continuing to engage the American people to get to our final product."

Industry groups praised the announcement, which would be the most expansive offshore drilling proposal in decades.

"This could help California increase our domestic energy production," said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association. "Currently, we import over 1 million barrels of oil in super tankers from overseas locations each and every day."

Dozens of environmental groups denounced the plan, saying in a joint statement the plan would impose "severe and unacceptable harm" to America's oceans, coastal economies, public health and marine life.

"California has taken the path of marine conservation and that has paid dividends on our coastal economy," said Sandy Aylesworth, an oceans associate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Californians, particularly in Southern California, remember the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, and will react to today’s announcement as a true threat to their livelihoods." 

Additional California politicians vowing to fight the proposal included Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom. But neither offered specifics on how they might influence the federal oil and gas leasing process.



A spokeswoman for the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over oil and gas development within three miles of the coast, said the agency could try to make it difficult for companies to build or expand pipelines to transport oil from new leases to be processed onshore.

The proposal comes less than a week after the Trump administration proposed to rewrite or kill rules on offshore oil and gas drilling imposed after the deadly 2010 rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and triggered the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The Trump administration called the rules an unnecessary burden on industry and said rolling them back will encourage more energy production. Environmentalists said Trump was raising the risk of more deadly oil spills.

The Obama administration imposed tougher rules in response to the BP spill. The rules targeted blowout preventers, which are massive valve-like devices designed to prevent spills from wells on the ocean floor. The preventer used by BP failed. The rules require more frequent inspections of those and other devices, as well as dictating that experts monitor drilling of highly complex wells in real time onshore.

Nearly eight years after the BP spill, the Gulf of Mexico is still recovering, said Diane Hoskins, campaign director for the marine conservation group Oceana.

"Americans have seen the devastation that comes from offshore drilling," she said. "Will we allow Florida's white beaches or the popular and pristine Outer Banks to share a similar fate? What about the scenic Pacific coast, or even remote Arctic waters?"

Zinke's announcement "ignores widespread and bipartisan opposition to offshore drilling," including from more than 150 municipalities nationwide and 1,200 local, state and federal officials, Hoskins said.

This story has been updated.