Heal the Bay and the California Coastal Commission will fight plans for more drilling off the coast

By Gary Walker

In 1969, a blowout in this oil platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara caused what was the largest U.S. oil spill at the time, fouling nearly 50 miles of coastline from Goleta to Ventura.

Westside environmental organizations and the California Coastal Commission blasted the Trump administration’s proposal last week to expand offshore oil and gas exploration, vowing to challenge any attempt to open new reserves near the Santa Monica Bay or elsewhere along the Pacific coast.

There are 23 existing oil platforms off the California coastline, but no new lease sales off California since 1984. It isn’t clear whether there might be any attempts to drill near Los Angeles, but Heal the Bay Vice President Sarah Sikich said an oil spill to the south or north of Santa Monica Bay could pollute L.A. or Santa Monica beaches under the right conditions.

“Depending on how large a spill and how strong the winds and currents are, absolutely,” she said.

Heal the Bay has been talking to other environmental groups since the administration’s Jan. 4 announcement of a five-year plan that would commit 90% of the nation’s offshore reserves to leasing, including at least two areas in Southern California.

Sikich recalled the 2015 oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara that discharged 142,800 gallons of crude oil from an underground pipeline. The cost of the cleanup is estimated to be nearly $100 million, and tar balls wound up on beaches within the Santa Monica Bay days after the spill.

“The thing about oil drilling and spills is it’s not a case of if it can happen — it’s when it will happen,” she said.

California Coastal Commission President Dana Bochco predicts that Californians, regardless of their political preferences, would rally against the proposal.

“Nothing galvanizes bipartisan resistance in California like the threat of more offshore oil drilling. We need to pursue a clean energy future, and this proposed plan will set the country on exactly the wrong course,” Bochco said in a statement. “Fortunately the Coastal Commission is the one state agency that actually has the authority to potentially prevent this from happening. We’ve fought similar efforts before, and we will fight them again.”

Rock Zierman, executive director of the California Independent Petroleum Association, cautions equating availability of oil leases with interest in pursuing them.

“Where there is currently no offshore production, such as Northern California, there is no interest, to my knowledge, to pursue new offshore leases,” Zierman said.

“If, however, new resources could be produced using existing infrastructure — meaning no new offshore platforms — we should explore it if it makes sense,” he continued. “Increasing our nation’s energy independence benefits consumers and the economy as whole. … California has the nation’s strongest environmental protections, so it makes sense to meet our energy needs here under these strict standards, instead of relying upon more imported oil that is produced without these protections and impacts the environment when it is transported here by tanker ship or rail car.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), who represents Westside communities and is an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, called any proposal to open oil reserves off the California coast a “bad idea.”

“This is the exact opposite of what we want to do as it pertains to fighting climate change,” Lieu said. “It’s too dangerous and can be harmful to wildlife and local economies. It only takes one oil spill to wreck our ocean’s ecosystem for a long time.”

Sikich noted how much cleaner the waters of the Santa Monica Bay region are following environmental protection policies and practices implemented during the Obama administration, which she says have coincided with the return of various sea mammals, indicating a much healthier ocean.

“One of our greatest concerns is how [oil drilling] would undermine the incredible investment that our state has made to protect our coastal waters,” she said.

Lieu said those who oppose oil drilling should organize demonstrations and participate in events such as the Los Angeles Women’s March on Jan. 20.

“We saw how the public was responsible for helping to defeat Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year,” said Lieu. “Like Abraham Lincoln said, ‘… Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.’”