California won’t ban offshore drilling after legislation stalls

By COLBY BERMEL

The bill, inspired by last fall’s oil spill off the Orange County coast, had steep opposition from the fossil fuel industry and its labor allies.

A California bill that would have banned offshore drilling in state waters failed to advance from a key committee on Thursday, dealing a deathblow to the legislation spurred by last fall’s Orange County oil spill that leaked 25,000 gallons of crude into pristine waters.

Even after the measure was updated to delay when the extraction practice would cease, it faced opposition from the fossil fuel industry and its labor allies, two politically powerful forces in the California Capitol that have killed other climate legislation in recent years.

The defeat of SB 953 underscores the Golden State’s rocky transition to a green economy, despite its environmental credentials. California is the seventh-largest oil-producing state in the country, activity that creates well-paid jobs and contributes to local tax bases.

“I think most legislators understand that every barrel of oil we don’t produce here under our strict environmental rules must be imported by foreign tankers floating offshore in our crowded ports from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or the Ecuadorian rainforest,” California Independent Petroleum Association CEO Rock Zierman said in a text message.

October’s spill, which federal prosecutors allege was exacerbated by an oil platform operator’s negligent response to what was likely an anchor striking an underwater pipeline months earlier, is the second significant leak in California waters in six years. This week, the company tied to the 2015 Refugio Beach oil spill in Santa Barbara County agreed to a $230 million settlement.

California’s modern environmental movement was spurred in part by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, with Southern California offshore platforms still within eyesight from shore. And last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other Democrats vowed to pursue long-sought prohibitions on offshore drilling in state waters, where the OC spill occurred, despite most offshore extraction occurring in federal waters.

“SB 953 was held because it didn’t work — it was going to cost the state billions of dollars for a symbolic victory,” Andrew Meredith, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, said in a statement. “The California Senate is rightfully more concerned with actually improving the plight of workers and our environment than chasing headlines.”

Environmentalists took the opposite stance on the cost question and pointed to the state’s $97.5 billion budget surplus. “We are disappointed that the Senate Appropriations Committee believed the cost of protecting our Orange County coastal economy, environment, and wildlife was too much, even given the size of state’s current budget surplus,” said Judie Mancuso, president of Social Compassion in Legislation, which co-sponsored the measure.

SB 953 by state Sen. Dave Min, a Costa Mesa Democrat who represents the district affected by the OC oil spill, was blocked Thursday in the state Senate Appropriations Committee before it could advance to a floor vote. That occurred despite changes to the proposal aimed at lessening the opposition, such as giving operators until the end of 2024 to negotiate agreements with the state over the early termination of their leases.

Newsom’s administration had cautioned Min about the thorny legal and logistical questions tied to a prohibition of that activity — including how to value what are essentially indefinite approvals to drill offshore.

Min wanted to leave that determination to the State Lands Commission. SB 953 likely died because it didn’t have a specific price tag tied to the effort, said Brian Nowicki, California climate policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which co-sponsored the measure.

“The offshore oil platforms must be closed and decommissioned, and we believe that needs to happen now,” Nowicki said in an interview. “But we also pointed out throughout this process that these platforms have tremendous liabilities associated with them, both financial and operational, that weigh very heavily against any claims that the operators must make.”

Min said in a statement that he was “proud of the fact that SB 953 has jump-started an important and much-needed dialogue about how California can and must transition away from offshore oil extraction. The aging infrastructure of these offshore platforms means they are ticking time bombs. Another oil spill — and all of the associated environmental and economic damage — is inevitable unless we act now.”

The state prepared alternative legislation, AB 2257, amid the debate over Min’s measure. The legislation by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas), which did advance Thursday, would simply require the State Lands Commission to study the fiscal impact of a voluntary buyout of leases.

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