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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Drilling

Air Date: Week of

The California coast near Santa Barbara is a breathtaking stretch of beach. Governor Gray Davis says no one can force California to let oil companies keep exploring there. But the Bush administration says it's not for states to decide. Deirdre Kennedy reports from Santa Barbara.


CURWOOD: Californians have long viewed their central coast as a paradise for recreation and tourism. But, energy companies see it as a treasure trove of natural gas and oil reserves. For years, state and federal officials have been locked in a legal battle over who may grant oil and gas exploration rights. Now, a federal appeals court will decide if the Bush administration will get the final word. Deirdre Kennedy reports from Santa Barbara.


KENNEDY: Thirty-three years ago, the scenic Santa Barbara coast was devastated by the largest oil spill in the lower forty-eight states. An offshore oil well blew out, sending a tide of crude oil bubbling onto one hundred miles of beaches from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo.

Santa Barbara resident, Joe Babine, went down to the shore to see the damage the day after the spill started.

BABINE: Everything was black as far as you could see. There was a seal that was lying on the beach with its head sticking up in the air an its eyes closed. And it was like a statue, it didn't move at all.

KENNEDY: The slick killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, fish and mammals. It was many years before the oil was completely cleaned up. And even now, there are still traces of tarry residue on the beaches. Thirty years later, the wildlife is flourishing once again. The coast has become home to more than two hundred species of seabirds, and a breeding ground to southern otters and harbor seals. Blue, gray and humpback whales regularly migrate through its waters.


KENNEDY: The 1969 spill galvanized the U.S. environmental movement. It sparked protests and thousands of letters to Congress against offshore oil drilling. In the 1990's, both the Bush and Clinton administration signed a moratorium on any new drilling off California. But in 1999, the Clinton administration decided it would allow companies that already own offshore rights to look for new oil and gas. The move alarmed environmental groups which teamed up with the state to block the federal government in court. The state easily won, says Environmental Defense Center attorney Linda Krop.

KROP: The judge held that the state of California, through its Coastal Commission, has a right to review those leases and, perhaps, even deny them if their development would violate our state's coastal act.

KENNEDY: The administration says it's a federal decision, not a state's. What happens in ocean waters three to ten miles offshore, the government is arguing the issue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Officials would not comment on the case for this story. But, at a recent conference in San Francisco, Interior Secretary Gail Norton said President Bush is fully aware of California's opposition to new drilling.

NORTON: The president supports the moratorium on leasing offshore California. That has been a consistent position that he has taken. There are existing leases that go back for many years. And essentially those are private property interests that have developed. Those are currently in litigation.

KENNEDY: California officials are united on the issue. "It's a no-brainer in this traditionally conservation minded state," says environmental attorney Linda Krop.

KROP: Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, was one of the most anti-oil governors we've ever had. The California Congressional delegation also has traditionally involved a lot of Republican opposition to oil. So, it's a real state versus federal, David versus Goliath type of battle.

KENNEDY: And California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols argues that bringing up the remaining oil off the central coast won't significantly lesson U.S. dependence on foreign oil. She says it would be more of an environmental hazard than the drilling that's already occurred.

NICHOLS: Basically, what we're talking about here is something that is closer to asphalt than something that you would put in your car. The stuff is viscose. It forms blobs if in the ocean. If it spills, the impact on seabirds is devastating.

KENNEDY: Even if the oil isn't fuel grade, it still has plenty of other uses, according to John Romero, spokesman for the Federal Mineral Management Service.

ROMERO: There are many items that are byproducts of oil. You have the obvious, the gasoline, kerosene, diesel, asphalt. But, again, the petrochemical components which go to making a lot of the items that we, as Californians, and Americans use on a daily basis, for medicines, cosmetics, to everyday household items.

KENNEDY: Supporters of oil drilling also say it's hypocritical for Californians who spend so much time in their cars to try to shut down drilling on their coast. Environmentalists would like to settle the issue by canceling the leases once and for all. And Congresswoman Lois Capps of Santa Barbara has written legislation that would ban any additional drilling.

Even today, Santa Barbara's beaches are covered in globs of tar that stick to your feet, and a smell of petroleum hangs in the air. State officials even blame some of the air pollution around Santa Barbara on current oil and gas operations. But, geologists say the tar balls and the acrid smell are caused by natural oil and gas seepage from the undersea shelf. Mineral Management Service spokesman, John Romero, says since the '69 spill the federal government has developed extremely tight safety regulations.

ROMERO: If you look at the spill record over the last 30 plus years, spills from platforms off California have equaled just over eight hundred barrels of oil. In comparison, in that same time period, over one million barrels of oil that have seeped into the marine environment from natural oil seepage.

KENNEDY: If the Bush administration wins its case in the Ninth Circuit, the oil companies could go ahead with underwater mapping to locate additional gas and oil reserves. California governor Gray Davis has vowed to take California's opposition all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the feds lose, the California Coastal Commission, for the first time, could decide whether to bar new oil exploration.

For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in Santa Barbara.

CURWOOD: And you're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.



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