The Trump administration is proposing a massive expansion in offshore oil drilling, reversing decades of federal policy and triggering immediate howls of protest from California Gov. Jerry Brown and scores of environmentalists.
The proposal, outlined by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, would open up areas of the California coast that have been deemed off-limits to oil exploration for years. The plan would also allow drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.
But don’t look for new oil platforms to pop up anytime soon. Opening up new oil exploration leases will require completion of an environmental review, which could take a year or longer, and states such as California have some power to complicate if not outright thwart Zinke’s proposal.
“There’s kind of a long road ahead, but (the states) definitely have the tools to challenge it,” said Sean Hecht, an environmental law expert at UCLA. But he said the federal government has considerable sway over offshore drilling, and it’s unclear which side would prevail.
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“We’ve never had this type of active, deep conflict between the state and federal governments,” Hecht said. “We’re in uncharted territory in a serious way.”
The Zinke plan is the first major proposed offshore drilling expansion since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was president.
West Coast officials were quick to respond. “For more than 30 years, our shared coastline has been protected from further federal drilling and we’ll do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action,” Brown said in a joint statement with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Sen. Kamala Harris called it “an incredibly harmful move.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Trump’s “reckless ‘drill, baby, drill’ approach threatens our oceans and coasts.”
The Trump plan is also facing opposition from some Republicans. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida issued a statement opposing the plan, saying his “top priority is to ensure that Florida’s natural resources are protected.”
California in particular has been sensitive about offshore oil drilling since 100,000 barrels of oil spilled off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, an environmental disaster that killed thousands of birds and fish and helped launch the modern environmental movement. It was the nation’s worst oil spill until the Exxon Valdez incident 20 years later off the coast of Alaska.
California hasn’t issued a new offshore oil and gas lease since the Santa Barbara disaster, according to the State Lands Commission. In late 2016, Brown called for a permanent prohibition on new drilling off the shore of the state.
But the state’s powers get murkier the further one goes out to sea. Hecht said states such as California generally control their coastal waters up to 3 miles off the coast. After that, much of the control switches to the federal government, under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. The state still has some sway over what happens in federal waters, but its determinations can be overturned by the federal government, Hecht said.
The state can object “but it’s not an absolute veto,” said Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at UC Davis.
Environmental advocates, though, said California has other cards to play. A producer would need permits from the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission before transporting any of its ocean production onshore, said Sandy Aylesworth of the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
Both of those agencies have long championed environmental protections. The Lands Commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a candidate for governor, last spring trumpeted the decommissioning of oil platforms off the city of Goleta, near Santa Barbara.
“The state has a lot of power,” Aylesworth said.
California is the nation’s third largest oil producer, with more than 186 million barrels produced in 2016, according to the state Department of Conservation. Almost all of that was produced inland, in Kern County and parts of Southern California, but the state’s offshore platforms still produced about 11 million barrels, mainly off the coasts of Santa Barbara and Long Beach.
“This announcement could help California increase our domestic energy production,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, in a prepared statement.
Zinke, in a prepared statement, said his plan would put “more than 98 percent of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas available to consider for future exploration and development.” As things stand now, 94 percent of those resources are off-limits, he said.
In a conference call with journalists, Zinke said any new oil leases would first undergo environmental review, and would not be exempted from the National Environmental Policy Act or other laws. He also noted it was a draft proposal that could change after public input. “Today’s announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period,” he said.
But environmentalists said they still fear the potential damage from new offshore drilling. Even the process of exploring new underwater oil fields, which involves the use of seismic air guns, can do “extraordinary damage to ocean life,” said Noah Oppenheim of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
“Commercial fishermen can’t lose another salmon season,” he said.