Offshore oil drilling: fighting words in California?
From Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the state's Democratic leaders, California reacted with a swift thumbs down Wednesday to President Bush's proposal to lift a ban on new oil drilling in coastal waters.
Still, environmentalists and many politicians warn that with record gas prices and global uncertainty about oil production, the pressure to drill will only grow.
Bush on Wednesday joined Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in calling for the lifting of a 27-year-old prohibition on offshore drilling, spurring memories of decades-old California environmental battles that began with the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
"There is no excuse for delay. . . . Families across the country are looking to Washington for a response," the president said in the Rose Garden.
"Here we go again," said Dan Haifley, who spent 17 years battling oil drilling off the California coast as the coordinator of Santa Cruz-based Save Our Shores. "My guess is that California communities will quickly coalesce to fight against new offshore oil development."
He and other environmentalists said Wednesday that the president's action was disconcerting because they felt the battle was won after Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, signed a 1990 executive order barring most offshore oil drilling.
In 1992, George H.W. Bush signed a bill establishing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. President Clinton renewed the moratorium in 1998 and extended itLeon Panetta, who as a Monterey Bay-area congressman was instrumental in stopping offshore oil drilling after Interior Secretary James Watt gave his blessing to lining the coast with oil rigs in the mid-1980s, dismissed Bush's statement as a political ploy.
"I'm not really shocked that Bush said what he said today," said Panetta, who served as Clinton's chief of staff. "It's one of those gimmicks" that political parties use when they can't come up with answers to vexing problems such as soaring energy costs.
The last statewide Field Poll on Californians' feelings toward oil drilling was taken in October 2005. Most said they would not favor loosening restrictions to stem the tide of rising gas prices.
Fifty-six percent of surveyed registered voters said they favored keeping the restrictions; 39 percent said they didn't.
But that poll was before gas hit $4.50 a gallon. That reality - and the fact that the issue has been dormant for so long - is what worries some environmentalists.
"It's been two decades since it's been an issue," said state Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz. "There's a whole generation of Californians not familiar with the facts."
As mayor of Santa Cruz
About 30 other coastal cities enacted similar ordinances that used zoning laws to prevent construction of pipelines, helicopter landing pads and other infrastructure that would be needed to support offshore oil drilling.
"I certainly take the threat from Bush seriously," said Mike Rotkin, a Santa Cruz city councilman who helped push those measures. "We need to build the same broad-based coalition that we did last time to fight it."
Rotkin said the anti-drilling movement was so successful in the '80s because the opposition wasn't limited to "environmental wackos." Fishermen, tourist officials and small-business people all joined the coalition, he said.
"We made it clear to the public that one spill destroys our fishing industry, that one spills destroys our tourist industry," Rotkin said.
Across the country Wednesday, governors in coastal states promised to block attempts to tap offshore oil reserves.
"California's coastline is an international treasure," Schwarzenegger, a McCain ally, said in a statement. "I do not support lifting this moratorium on new oil drilling off our coast."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, also denounced Bush's proposal.
But another McCain supporter, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, reversed his opposition to oil exploration off the state's beaches after McCain said he supported lifting the moratorium. Crist said the issue is about local control.
"I think that not having that moratorium, blanket moratorium, and letting states' rights be recognized, if you will, certainly is appropriate," he said.
Even oil industry officials were cautious Wednesday about Bush's support for more coastal drilling, apparently not wanting to anger a public that is already furious at the industry for soaring gas prices.
"Californians have voiced their opinions on numerous occasions that they do not support or want development of energy resources off their coast. Period," said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. "We don't advocate a change in those policies because that issue - at least until quite recently - seemed to be decided."
In California, the political voices in support of lifting the moratorium were muted.
Among those supporting Bush was the minority leader in the state Senate.
"Personally, yes, I believe we need to be drilling in our own reserves," Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno, said Wednesday during a news conference related to the state budget. "We need to use the resources available to us in this country."
Contact Ken McLaughlin at email@example.com or (408) 920-5552.