SANFRANCISCO?North Coast anti-drilling activists came away from a federal hearing Thursday optimistic that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar won?t allow oil rigs off Mendocino County.
?I think that he wants, and I know President Obama wants, very much to protect our coast,? said Rachel Binah, a Democratic National Committee member and longtime opponent of offshore oil development.
Salazar, wearing a dark suit, cowboy boots and a beige Stetson, hosted his final public hearing Thursday on the nation?s offshore energy potential. New production might include oil and natural gas, wind and waves.
At a noon press conference, the former Colorado senator said Americans should know later this year which U.S. coastal areas will be opened up for oil exploration and drilling. That decision likely would be part of a comprehensive national energy plan that he earli had said must address new types of energy production ?and the reality of climate change.?
The hearing, one of four held around the nation, took place at the UC San Francisco?s Mission Bay Campus not far from the Giants? AT&T Park.
Before leaving office, President George W. Bush proposed a series of lease sales, including one area off Mendocino County and others in Southern California. Salazar has delayed action on those lease proposals and instead is seeking comment from residents of Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and both the East and West coasts.
Thursday?s audience of about 400 included representatives from the oil industry as well as environmentalists. The first to speak were elected officials, who gave Salazar a unified message of opposition to offshore oil drilling for California and Oregon, as well as support for various forms of renewable energy. Their comments at times drew rousing applause.
?Put simply, new drilling sites off our pristine coast would be an environmental and economic disaster for our state,? said U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. She said that coastal tourism and fishing generate 390,000 jobs and annually adds $23 billion to the economy.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, said the waters under review off Mendocino County are ?some of the most biologically productive on the planet.? She maintained that an oil spill would have devastating consequences on a vast section of ocean.
?The Point Arena basin that you are considering for oil and gas exploration could be turned from a wellspring of life into a death plume,? Woolsey said.
Other speakers included Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulonsoski and state Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata.
Salazar urged the audience to respect and even applaud an oil industry representative.
But the anti-drilling activists later suggested that Salazar?s sympathies lay with those who opposed oil rigs off California and that the elected officials were, as Boxer put it, ?preaching to the choir.?
?I think he was laying the groundwork to abandon the lease sales,? said Kendall Smith, a Mendocino County supervisor.
Salazar repeatedly questioned officials and business leaders on how soon offshore wave or wind energy might produce a significant amount of energy.
He later told reporters that conventional fuels remain necessary. For example, he said, coal now provides 50 percent of America?s electrical production. Similarly, he said, the way forward isn?t ?to the exclusion of oil and gas.?
An oil industry representative said the administration should remain open to oil exploration along the California coast.