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Democrats push Obama to protect California coast from new drilling

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With three weeks left until President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists remain hopeful that President Barack Obama will grant their long-standing wish: permanent protection of the California coast from new offshore oil and gas drilling.

North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who met personally with administration officials at the White House in November, said he will continue lobbying for presidential action through Obama’s final hours in office on Jan. 20.

“We’ve got to keep pushing until the end,” Huffman said.

A host of Democratic heavyweights — including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, 26 state senators including Mike McGuire of Healdsburg, and the California Coastal Commission’s chairwoman — sent official letters to Obama urging him to use an obscure federal law to withdraw California waters from future energy leasing.

But to their collective dismay, the Pacific Coast was not included in Obama’s decision two weeks ago to protect hundreds of millions of acres in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans in an executive action observers described as an effort to reinforce his legacy as an environmental leader.

Huffman, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called that stroke a “bold action,” adding at the time in a press release that offshore oil drilling “anywhere in American waters poses deadly and unacceptable risks” to the environment, coastal communities and the global climate.

But in an interview last week, Huffman acknowledged the shortfall to California.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” he said.

The Arctic and Atlantic may have seemed higher priorities for protection because there have been recent efforts to drill for oil in those oceans, Huffman said.

And a majority of California politicians have been so strongly anti-drilling for so long that the state may have seemed an unlikely target, but “that’s no longer a safe assumption,” he said.

Boxer, who is retiring after 24 years in the Senate, said she was disappointed.

“We knew it was going to be a long shot since there are other areas in even greater danger politically,” she said in an email.

“We’ve all seen the terrible damage that oil spills do to our environment and our economy — that’s why Californians have fought so hard and so long to keep our coast clean,” Boxer said. “We need to keep fighting, now more than ever.”

California’s “postcard perfect coastline” is an economic dynamo that contributes $40 billion a year to the state economy and cannot be jeopardized by the demand for more fossil fuels, McGuire said.

A single event like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that poured nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 would “ruin a whole economy,” he said.

McGuire said he, too, hopes Obama will grant California permanent protection before leaving office.

In his letter to Obama on Dec. 13, Gov. Brown said: “Clearly, large new oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with our overriding imperative to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat the devastating impacts of climate change.”

Dayna Bochco, the Coastal Commission chairwoman, asked the president in a letter to “help us achieve our goal of permanent protection for our ocean waters, beaches and coastal economies at risk from new oil and gas drilling.”

A similar letter from Boxer and Feinstein was co-signed by Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey.

Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a veteran anti-drilling advocate, said Obama’s protection of the Atlantic and Arctic waters leaves the Golden State more exposed with an oil-friendly Trump administration coming into office.

“California is just a sitting duck,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation, an environmental nonprofit organization.

Obama’s action last month prompted immediate criticism by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who called it an “abuse of power,” and from an American Petroleum Institute official who said it ignored “our national security and vital, good-paying job opportunities for our shipyards, unions and businesses of all types across the country.”

The Sonoma Coast is protected from energy development by marine sanctuaries that stretch from San Luis Obispo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County.

But there are four potential drilling targets farther north in Mendocino, and an oil spill in that area would likely reach Sonoma County, Charter said.

Cheap crude oil prices, due largely to a global oversupply, will forestall the oil industry from any new drilling initiatives for now, Huffman said.

“But if gas prices go above $3 a gallon, you begin to worry about it,” he said. “They eventually will, no doubt.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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