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Sonoma Coast ocean sanctuary clears Senate hurdle

A national marine sanctuary bill from California?s two Democratic senators that would permanently ban off-shore oil drilling along the 76-mile Sonoma County coast and part of the Mendocino coast cleared a key committee Wednesday.

The bill from Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein would expand existing sanctuaries near the Gulf of the Farallones and the Cordell Bank by taking in an additional 2,100 square miles from Bodega Bay north to Point Arena.

It passed the Senate Commerce Committee despite Republican opposition and will go to the full Senate, where last year it was blocked by critics who said it would increase the country?s dependence on foreign oil. A companion bill from Rep. Lynn Woolsey was approved in the House last year and is now back in a House subcommittee for reconsideration.

?We stand a much better chance of passing a sanctuaries bill this year because the Senate is more Democratic and we have an administration that cares about preserving the health of our oceans,? said Michael Gravitz, a lobbyist for Environment America, who has been urging the legislation for more than two years.

California has two other marine sanctuaries ? near the Channel Islands and at Monterey Bay. The Boxer-Feinstein measure would bring in a new area the size of Delaware, protecting the Russian and Gualala river estuaries and the nutrient-rich Bodega Canyon.

It comes after President George Bush ? in one of his last acts before leaving office ? lifted a 1990 ban on offshore oil drilling and proposed a series of lease sales, including one in an area off Mendocino County and others in Southern California.

Obama administration officials delayed action on the proposals and are developing their own energy strategy that could involve drilling for gas and oil and harnessing wind and waves.

In April, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar traveled to the Bay Area gauging public sentiment, which is heavily against offshore drilling. He said the administration will announce later this year if any coastal areas will be opened to oil development. He also cautioned that some drilling was necessary.

The sanctuary measure would prevent oil rigs from appearing within 50 miles of the Sonoma coast and the southern tip of the Mendocino coast.

Gravitz said the region is one of the world?s most productive ecosystems, critical to sea life up to 300 miles away. Whales, turtles and nesting birds as far south as Monterey depend on its continued good health, which would be preserved under the legislation, Gravitz said.


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