SACRAMENTO — California Democrats are seizing on a massive oil spill that has sullied popular beaches in Orange County and killed sea life to pursue long-sought bans on offshore drilling.
They’re seeking action in both Washington and Sacramento, where lawmakers are pushing to unilaterally prohibit drilling-related activities in waters off the California coast.
The 144,000-gallon slick has newly galvanized California lawmakers and environmental groups, who have struggled to convince leaders even in this blue state to restrict oil production in recent years.
Newsom on Tuesday excoriated fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change and got in a dig at former President Donald Trump before throwing his support behind a congressional effort to ban new offshore drilling on the West Coast.
“Those damn platforms, fossil fuels. It’s not very complicated. We need to grow up, grow out of this dependency and this mindset, this mindset that we can’t do more and do better,” he said at a press conference in Huntington Beach. “I want the Trump administration folks, all those folks out there, all those Republicans out there who still think the answer to the problem is more offshore drilling to just know: Not in our backyard. It won’t happen.”
Congressional Democrats are also looking to the spill to press their advantage. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other West Coast senators on Wednesday urged Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to include their bill to ban new offshore drilling off California, Oregon and Washington in the Senate’s version of the massive budget reconciliation bill.
“If anyone is wavering, the fact that we have another fresh reminder that where you drill, you spill, is helpful,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, which has been introduced every session since the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 and is already inserted in a House version of the reconciliation package.
Lawmakers on the state level have found it nearly as difficult to limit petroleum production, despite strong Democratic supermajorities in both houses and steady public opposition to more offshore drilling. Fossil fuel companies have united with Democratic-aligned labor unions to block state proposals restricting oil production. But environmentalists and their legislative allies hope the rupture — which initial reports indicate may have been caused by a ship’s anchor — will give them traction.
California officials have a history of trying to capitalize on petroleum industry provocations, dating back to a moratorium on new offshore leases prompted by a 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara. More recently, state lawmakers responded to Trump’s attempt to schedule offshore lease sales off of the California coast by passing a law banning new oil and gas infrastructure in state waters, including the underwater pipelines that connect to drilling platforms in federal waters.
State Sen. Dave Min (D-Costa Mesa), who represents the Orange County district that stretches from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach, said this week he was considering a new bill to ban both new and existing oil infrastructure in state waters. Such a move would mostly target operations in federal waters by depriving them of their easiest route to the coast: a three-mile stretch that starts at the shoreline and extends to federal territory.
“Obviously we can’t dictate what happens, at the state legislature level, on federal waters. But we can control our state waters,” Min said.
Environmentalists are hoping a newly emboldened Newsom, released from the limbo of a recall campaign, will also use the spill to exercise his executive authority over onshore production.
“These are the moments, politically, that are the most powerful to move big action,” said Mary Creasman, CEO of the group California Environmental Voters. “The governor more than survived a recall, and the commitment was that climate would be a top-tier priority when he kept his job.”
Newsom has begun reining in onshore production in recent months after announcing his intent to ban fracking by 2024. He’s asked state climate regulators to analyze the effects of phasing out all oil extraction by 2045 as part of an economywide carbon neutrality push. And state oil regulators have begun denying fracking permits on the basis of the activity’s contributions to climate change and threats to public health.
But his administration has blown two self-imposed deadlines on deciding whether to impose buffer zones between drilling and sensitive areas like schools and neighborhoods, leaving environmentalists and industry wondering what regulators will do.
And while the state has had a moratorium on new offshore leases for decades, it still grants new permits to existing leases. According to state data compiled by the environmental group FracTracker Alliance, California has issued 138 permits for offshore activity during Newsom’s tenure, including five permits for new drilling off of existing platforms.
Newsom stressed at a Tuesday press conference that petroleum extraction “does not have to be part of our future,” but didn’t say whether he would support shutting down existing operations, as environmentalists — and some of the lawmakers flanking him on the beach — are advocating. He said there would be “more permits for abandonment, less permits for reworking and for new drilling,” and referenced the buffer zone rule.
“All of those things I assure you are on the table, and very much part of the conversation we’re having with renewed sense of urgency because of this latest spill,” he said.
But the governor also was careful to put some of the onus on the public, rather than squarely on industry.
“I don’t know how many of you drove today; maybe you all walked, or biked. I don’t know how many of you have been on a plane the last few years, but society becomes how we behave as well. And so it’s not just a supply issue, it’s a demand issue. And we’ve got to radically change demand.”
Amplify Energy, the Houston-based parent company of the pipeline owner, did not respond to a request for comment. One of the oil industry’s main voices in Sacramento, the Western States Petroleum Association, said it hoped the incident wouldn’t result in a ban on production. Amplify is not a member of the group.
“Any unfortunate incident like this will certainly draw more attention to regulatory and policy issues related to our industry,” said WSPA spokesperson Kevin Slagle. “We’re always open to discussion; one of the ways we know we can have an equitable energy future is if we’re able to talk with each other, not yell at each other. So we’re hopeful that any discussion that comes out of this is one that can be productive, that isn’t based on bans and mandates and is based on what California needs to have safe, affordable and reliable energy.”
One bill on Newsom’s desk would give the state more power to fine companies that violate the state’s coastal protection laws. Newsom last fall signed a measure doubling fines tied to oil spills.
Still, lawmakers are clear-eyed about the political realities. Previous attempts to rein in oil production have met quick ends in the Legislature, like a bill earlier this year that would have imposed the buffer zone requirement on Newsom’s administration. It ran into heavy opposition from industry and allied labor unions.
“Yes, the spill will generate more discussion, but will it help certain bills get over the finish line?” said Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), the bill’s co-author. “It’s something all legislators will have to grapple with — but these tragedies don’t make votes any easier.”
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