A proposal to permanently ban new offshore oil and natural gas drilling on the West Coast prompted by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has won quick support from environmentalists and 14 California congressional Democrats.
North Coast Reps. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma and Mike Thompson of St. Helena are among the co-sponsors of a bill that would ban oil and gas development off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts.
Crude oil gushing from a blown-out well a mile deep in the gulf and threatening the region's fisheries is "proof positive that we need to protect our coasts," Woolsey said.
"I think this is a real wake-up call," Thompson said, calling the gulf spill a "game-changer" in the debate over offshore oil drilling.
President Barack Obama and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have both suspended plans for expanded offshore drilling since the deadly oil rig explosion on April 20 led to a leak of about 200,000 gallons of oil per day.
"We're all going to back off from offshore drilling until we get a better handle of how to make it safe," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, told the McClatchy Newspapers.
Thompson and Woolsey said that a pervasive shift in sentiment against offshore oil bodes well for their own bills, which would shield portions of the North Coast from drilling.
"One school of thought is to put them all together," Thompson said, noting that other lawmakers may propose bans in their districts as well.
The California Democrats are backing Walnut Creek Rep. John Garamendi's bill to reinstate a drilling ban that lapsed in 2008 amid Republican demands to "drill now," augmented by public frustration over $4-a-gallon gasoline.
Garamendi, a former lieutenant governor and a deputy U.S. interior secretary under President Bill Clinton, made the West Coast Ocean Protection Act his first bill since joining Congress last November.
"This is the time," he said. "Everybody is interested."
An oil well blowout like the one in the gulf would do "far more extensive damage" on the California coast, he said, where the wind and waves "would almost certainly drive the spill onshore."
More than two weeks after the gulf blowout, crude oil was just washing up Thursday on barrier islands off the Louisiana coast.
But Rachel Binah of Mendocino County, a veteran anti-drilling activist, said the oil already has worked its way into the marine food chain and "the potential for future devastation is immense."
"What I see on TV is sickening," Binah said. "I can only hope something positive can come of it."
Binah and Thompson said they both doubted the oil industry's contention that technology made offshore drilling relatively risk-free.
"That wasn't true in 1969 and it isn't true today," Thompson said, referring to Santa Barbara's 4-million-gallon oil spill four decades ago, which essentially halted California's offshore oil development.
The oil industry still points to its 40-year record of drawing more than 1 billion barrels of oil from California waters and spilling only about 840 barrels in the last 40 years.
California offshore wells operate in shallow water, no more than 1,200 feet deep, a "whole different dynamic" than the Gulf of Mexico's deep water wells, said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.
"Our economy and our lifestyle depend on it," she said, referring to the 36 million-barrel a year yield from offshore wells.