California Policy Manager, Surfrider Foundation

Photo: Patagonia.

The Inertia

On their own, the words “California State Lands Commission meeting” are likely inspire a yawn or shrug from the average ocean lover. But add in the attempt by an oil company to expand its operations off the Santa Barbara coast, the leaping-to-action of several passionate advocates, some bold responses from charismatic leaders, and suddenly the story sounds a lot juicer.

It starts like this: Venoco, Inc., which operates the only oil drilling platform in state waters, has a proposal to the State Lands Commission (SLC) to expand its existing leases offshore the city of Goleta, near Santa Barbara. If approved, the project would constitute the first new or expanded lease in state waters since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that killed thousands of animals, enraged the public and launched much of the regulatory improvements California’s coast benefits from today.

In 2015, El Capitan State Beach was one of several popular beaches that remained closed for months after the Refugio oil spill.

Oil spill fears have again been realized as recently as 2015, when a Plains All American pipeline broke, spilling more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil at Refugio beach. It’s a disaster that killed sea lions and birds, caused several beach closures and left oil Platform Holly non-operational.

Last week, State Controller (and State Lands Commissioner) Betty Yee reaffirmed her opposition to new oil drilling off California’s coast, including the “adjustment” proposed in Venoco’s application.

“Oil drilling must not be expanded,” Controller Yee announced. “The Santa Barbara Channel is a world-renowned habitat that hosts vast terrestrial and marine diversity that deserves protection from the adverse environmental impacts of further oil drilling.”

At the commission’s Tuesday meeting, advocates for coastal protection pointed out that approving an expanded oil lease and allowing new drilling in state waters would contradict the commission’s own unanimously approved December resolution against any further federal oil development off California’s coast. The resolution, like a similar one made by the California Coastal Commission, was prompted by concerns over what new federal energy policies might be.

“Given the change in the federal administration, maintaining a strong anti-oil, pro-coastal protection message is critical,” Surfrider Foundation California Policy Manager Jennifer Savage told commissioners during the meeting’s public comment period. “The proposed expansion would further subject Santa Barbara residents for risks they’ve struggled to diminish for decades now,” she continued. “It’s simply not fair.”

Natural Resource Defense Council Ocean Advocate Sandy Aylesworth detailed a similar stance. “Expanding oil extraction in state waters clearly contradicts… the Commission’s December resolution and sends the wrong signal to the administration, Aylesworth said. “An expansion would threaten California’s credibility as a leader in combating climate change at a time when state leadership is essential,” she said.

Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips listed examples of potential harm Venoco’s project would cause and echoed previous speakers saying approval would “send a signal to the Drumpf administration that California’s coast is open to oil drilling.” Phillips asked the commissioners to direct staff to “reject any new drilling in state waters and any new proposals in state waters.”

After Phillips spoke, Lt. Gov. Newsom broke into public comment. “I wanted to just say that project’s dead,” he said, observing that he was sharing his opinion on the proposal as the Controller had expressed hers, before moving briskly on.

With two of the three voting members of the State Lands Commission now publicly opposed to the project, environmental advocates are optimistic that California’s longstanding opposition to new oil drilling will remain intact, at least in state waters.

Note: For a more details, skip ahead to about 59:30 in the video below.


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