Offshore drilling rigs and the North Coast go together about as well as oil and water.

A congressional moratorium on new offshore leases protected this scenic resource for 26 years before it was allowed to expire in 2008. By then, the environmental and economic benefits of permanently protecting the North Coast were evident to anyone but the most ardent advocates of offshore drilling.

Unfortunately, that descriptions fits much of the House of Representatives, and legislation to prohibit offshore drilling has gone nowhere. And the prospects won't be any better after the new Congress is seated in January.

For now, fervent public opposition and a conservation-conscious administration in Washington are enough to block any drilling off the Sonoma Coast. But there is an opportunity to put stronger safeguards in place.

Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Barack Obama has executive power to establish national monuments. Rep. Lynn Woolsey and Sen. Barbara Boxer have asked him to use that authority to protect about 2,800 square miles of ocean off Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties.

After years of legislative efforts that produced nothing but frustration, coastal activist Richard Charter called the new approach a "a hail Mary pass." Perhaps it is. But there are good precedents for invoking the Antiquities Act to protect ocean resources.

President George W. Bush created four national monuments in American territorial waters in the South Pacific. In 2009, he designated the Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll marine national monuments. Three years earlier, he established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

Bush isn't alone. In 2000, President Bill Clinton protected islets, reefs and rock outcroppings along the state's 840-mile coastline as the California Coastal National Monument. Other examples include the Channel Islands in Southern California, protected since a 1933 order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Some areas off the North Coast already are off limits to drilling, including the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries. Drilling also is banned in state waters. As envisioned by Woolsey and Boxer, the prohibition would cover all coastal waters from the Golden Gate to Point Arena.

The case for protection is clear: North Coast communities rely on fishing and tourism. Oil rigs would threaten both, and a spill could be disastrous.

Still, creating a national monument would be controversial. Some House Republicans support legislation to take that power away from the president, and oil companies strongly object to any new restrictions on offshore oil development.

An executive order protecting the North Coast wouldn't prevent drilling in areas where there is public support. It should, however, come with a challenge to conserve. We can't continue to burn fuel at our present pace while opposing oil drilling, and we can't control greenhouse gases without burning less fuel.