The Riggs Report: Oil drilling angst

​December 15, 2016

Gov. Jerry Brown seeks offshore ban on new wells

President Obama could do California Gov. Jerry Brown a final favor before turning over the keys to the Oval Office to Donald Trump in January. But will he?

With the clock running out, Brown dispatched a letter to the White House this week, asking the president to use his authority under existing law to permanently ban the drilling of new oil and gas wells in federal waters off the California coast.

“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,” Brown said in the Dec. 13 letter. “Now is the time to make permanent the protection of our ocean waters and beaches from new oil and gas drilling.”

Brown’s urgency is driven by the clear expectation that the incoming Trump administration will be very friendly to future oil and gas development. Trump’s cabinet nominations this week included former Texas Gov. Rick Perry as energy secretary and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

Perry is no fan of California’s governor. He engaged in a very public feud with Brown over efforts to entice California jobs while he was still Texas governor—efforts that included recruiting trips and offers of tax incentives.

Perry is also a strong advocate of expanded drilling, as opposed to Brown’s evangelical-style call to reduce dependence on petroleum use as a means of managing climate change.

Brown’s call to stop new drilling is the latest chapter in a decades-long conflict.

There has been vocal opposition and animosity to expanded offshore oil production ever since an infamous blowout on a Union Oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara in January 1969. Over a 10-day period, the blowout leaked an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel, killing birds, fish, seals and other marine life before it was contained.

The tragedy gave rise to a new class of environmental activism and prompted California to plug new production in state waters, which extend 3 miles offshore, as well as generating opposition to expanded drilling in federal waters on the Outer Continental Shelf.

That almost changed a few years ago.

State officials, attracted by the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue, considered a proposal in 2010 to allow new drilling at Tranquillon Ridge near Point Arguello in waters off Santa Barbara County.

In fact, the nonpartisan legislative analyst concluded that the “proposal merits legislative approval.”

But political support for the idea, from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, evaporated after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April of that year.

With that historic backdrop, Brown wants Obama to extend a five-year ban on new drilling off California’s coast by making it permanent.

It’s unknown whether Obama is willing to make that kind of environmental leap as he heads out the door—a move that is sure to generate litigation that would keep lawyers employed for years.