As Trump Pushes Offshore Drilling, Local Lawmakers Push Back

4:32 minutes

four oil rigs in a row in the ocean
Oil rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel. Photo by Anita Ritenour/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story originally appeared on KQED in Northern California

The Trump Administration is proposing a major expansion of offshore oil leasing nationwide, including off the California Coast.

It would be the first West Coast oil lease sale since the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. State and local officials could easily throw a wrench in the plans.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and long-time offshore drilling opponent. “I think the Pacific part of this five-year leasing plan is dead on arrival.”

Becoming an “Energy Superpower”

The Department of the Interior is proposing lease sales from Northern to Southern California beginning in 2020, as well as in Alaska and on the Atlantic Coast. Exactly where those oil leases are would be determined later in the planning process.

“This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance.”

West Coast elected officials were quick to condemn the plan.

“They’ve chosen to forget the utter devastation of past offshore oil spills to wildlife and to the fishing, recreation and tourism industries in our states,” Governor Jerry Brown said in a joint statement with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “They’ve chosen to ignore the science that tells us our climate is changing and we must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Cities and Counties Pull Up the Welcome Mat

The leases would be offered in federal waters, which begin three miles offshore and extend to 200 miles offshore.

But oil companies must bring that oil onshore to refine and sell it. That’s where they run into state and local jurisdictions.

During the last federal push to open up oil drilling in the 1980s, the City of Santa Cruz passed a measure that banned new onshore oil facilities, including pipelines, unless it went to a public vote.

Many other California cities and counties followed suit, including Sonoma, San Mateo, Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties. These “onshore facilities” ordinances survived a legal challenge from an oil industry association in 1990.

“They still stand today and those tend to have a chilling effect on leasing by an oil company because they aren’t going to have anywhere to take any oil or gas they might find,” said Charter. “I think there’s going to be more pretty soon after today’s announcement.”

California Legislators Respond With New Bill

California has banned offshore oil drilling in state waters, which extend from the coastline to three miles offshore. But state legislators are looking at taking it a step farther.

State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) is introducing SB 834, which would ban new pipelines, piers, wharves, or other infrastructure that would go through state waters. A similar bill died in committee last year. A companion bill, AB 1775, is being introduced by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance).

That could dissuade oil companies from buying oil leases. Without a pipeline to bring oil onshore, oil companies would have to turn to other means, like using ships for transport, which is generally seen as riskier and more expensive.

The State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over state waters, has already adopted a resolution that directs staff “to take appropriate actions to ensure that any oil and gas product from new drilling never makes landfall in California,” according to commission chair Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

Price of Oil

Economics is perhaps the largest factor in determining whether new oil rigs appear off the California coast. Oil prices have been low and offshore drilling is generally much more expensive than exploration on land.

Still, oil industry groups applauded the Administration’s drilling push.

“This new offshore leasing plan is an important step towards harnessing our nation’s energy potential for the benefit of American energy consumers,” said the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito in a statement.

In comments to the Department of the Interior, Chevron expressed interest in opening the Pacific Coast for leasing, but ranked Southern California as seventh on their priority list, after regions in the Gulf and Atlantic.

“Our priorities in offshore exploration are in the Gulf of Mexico and understanding the potential of the Atlantic waters off the East Coast,” Chevron said in an email.

Still, many environmental groups believe that today’s oil prices wouldn’t stop oil companies from speculating on leases now and waiting for the conditions to change.

“The economics aren’t there now,” said Charter. “But because they can acquire leases and hold them, they can drill later.”

The Trump Administration’s plan could take up to two years to finalize with the first leases being offered in California in 2020. The public comment period opens on January 8 and the Department of the Interior will hold a meeting in Sacramento on February 8.

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Segment Guests

Lauren Sommer

Lauren Sommer is a science and environment reporter for KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now, it’s time to check in on the state of science.


SPEAKER 1: This is KER–


SPEAKER 3: Saint Louis Public Radio news.

SPEAKER 2: Iowa Public Radio radio news.

IRA FLATOW: It’s where we check in on science in the states, and this state is California. Earlier this month, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era rules that banned offshore oil and gas drilling along much of the US coastline. And many of the states that border those coasts are not happy except for Florida, which has received an exemption from the change, leaving drilling off limits on its coast.

At least one state is pushing back. Joining me to talk about how California is reacting to the policy shift is Lauren Sommer, KQED science reporter. Welcome back, Lauren.


IRA FLATOW: So California doesn’t love offshore drilling. But they have a history of that– not loving– for a reason right?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yes. You have to go back to 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara, where there was really serious oil spill and kind of really galvanized the environmental movement in California. But, you know, the opposition– it’s been almost 30– more than 30 years, actually, since California has been kind of offered up in this way.

Essentially, the federal government is saying to oil companies, these are some of the areas where we’re going to start offering offshore oil leases. And they are signaling the entire California coast might be opened up to that. And the last time that happened was under President Reagan– under his Interior Secretary James Watt.

So is some of the things that actually might get in the way of the Trump administration were hatched way back then in the ’80s.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So how many local communities are pushing back, and how are they doing that?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah. So what happened in the ’80s– and these are laws that are still on the books– is the city of Santa Cruz was trying to figure out, how do we stop this federal push for drilling? And federal waters are from three miles offshore to about 200 miles offshore. And they have– the federal government has say. You know, the state can’t really do much about that.

But cities and counties, they have jurisdiction over the land, right? And so they were thinking, well, OK, we have these zoning ordinances, right? When people want to build something, they have to come and get a permit. And there’s a whole process.

And they passed a law that said if an oil company wants to build something onshore– so, say, bring a pipeline onshore, or build a pier, or a processing facility– they actually have to get it approved by a vote of the people in Santa Cruz to get that bill. Essentially, it’s kind of like a little regulatory wall that they built against the federal government.

And so once they did that, they got this idea that they were– maybe other parts of California should adopt the same policy. And they kind of hired this one guy from a nonprofit to drive up and down the coast kind of spreading the word. His name is Dan Haifley, and he worked for a nonprofit called Save Our Shores. This is how he describes kind of doing that.

DAN HAIFLEY: I would walk in with my slide presentation. And it was that sort of thing. It was grassroots democracy and grassroots activism at its best.

So I would sleep on couches. And I would travel the state in my little car– a tiny little thing. It felt kind of like Johnny Appleseed.

LAUREN SOMMER: And essentially, 26– and in the end, 26 cities and counties in California have passed similar laws that are still on the books today.

IRA FLATOW: So is that is that going to prevent this offshore drilling?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting question. So the state legislature has kind of picked up on this idea now that California is kind of back on the menu for offshore drilling. And there’s a bill that’s been proposed where it would ban any pipelines or oil facilities in state waters. That’s from the actual shoreline to three miles out. So state legislators have kind of picked up on this idea from the ’80s, and they’re potentially going to get that bill passed.

But I think it’s still– it’s a long process. No one– this administration hasn’t really put out the areas that they want to see leased yet. This is just the beginning of that process.

And the technology has changed quite a bit because this raises the question, right, like, if you don’t have a pipeline, is there still a way to produce oil? And there are ways that oil companies do offshore drilling, where they put it on to shuttle tankers. So essentially, they offload the oil onto ships.

IRA FLATOW: So you get around it.

LAUREN SOMMER: So the technology–

IRA FLATOW: Nice. You get around the regulations.

LAUREN SOMMER: The technology has changed.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much. We’ll be keeping abreast of what’s going on.

Lauren Sommer is science reporter at KQED. We’re going to take a break and come back and talk about algorithms helping to make decisions in the courtrooms and in the realm of public policy.

All coming up after the break. So stay with us.

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