Reviving a half-century battle over offshore oil drilling in California, the Trump administration’s blanket approach to a bedrock environmental issue has put a bulwark against oil wells off the North Coast in jeopardy.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s proposal to sell oil and natural gas development rights in every ocean that touches the United States includes Sonoma and Mendocino county waters — a coastal region that has just 5 percent of the nation’s untapped offshore oil reserves.
The plan to open 90 percent of the country’s 1.7 billion offshore acres to oil exploration and drilling aroused widespread opposition from governors, senators, state and local officials and environmentalists, who became increasingly angry after Zinke this week exempted Florida from the plan for what appeared to be a political consideration.
In California, a state estranged from expanded offshore oil extraction since the calamitous Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, the new five-year drilling plan — an outgrowth of President Donald Trump’s “America-First” energy strategy announced in April — provoked virtually unanimous dissent.
“This is the most outrageous proposal we’ve seen in 40 years,” said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a veteran anti-drilling advocate.
Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris, all Democrats, railed against the plan and pledged to apply political and legal pressures to thwart it.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll finding that a record low 25 percent of California adults favored more offshore oil drilling, while a record high 69 percent opposed it, suggested the politicians were in line with residents who treasure the state’s 1,270-mile shoreline.
On the North Coast, drilling foes were rattled by uncertainty over the future of two national marine sanctuaries that prohibit drilling in 4,600 square miles of ocean — an area nearly as large as Sonoma and Mendocino counties combined.
The White House has a hole card in the form of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ review of additions to marine sanctuaries and monuments since 2007, including consideration of the foregone cost of “potential energy and mineral exploration” in federal offshore waters.
Ross submitted his report — another element of the Trump energy policy — in October, but no one outside the administration has seen it or knows whether it calls for rescinding an expansion in 2015 that more than doubled the size of the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries, extending their protective boundaries 60 miles north from Bodega Head to Point Arena in Mendocino County.
That stretch of scenic coast “is in limbo,” Charter said, until Ross’ recommendations are revealed.
Heightening the stakes, the sanctuaries overlay and put off-limits to drilling parts of two oil basins hugging the shoreline of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the likeliest local targets for exploration should the oil industry show interest in the rugged coastline far removed from any energy infrastructure.
Zinke’s plan, released 10 days ago, is the first step toward a new National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which would eventually supplant a five-year plan established by the Obama administration.
The Obama plan for 2017-2022 rankled oil patch Republicans and the oil industry by limiting new lease sales — granting permanent rights to offshore energy development — to only 10 auctions in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.