Offshore oil drilling to get cheaper gas? Not worth it, California leaders say

Offshore oil rigs line the Santa Barbara Channel in March 2015. The Trump administration is proposing to open more of the California coast for oil and natural gas exploration.
Offshore oil rigs line the Santa Barbara Channel in March 2015. The Trump administration is proposing to open more of the California coast for oil and natural gas exploration. Los Angeles Times/TNS

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Californians have been fiercely opposed to offshore oil drilling for half a century.

So it should be no surprise that the Trump Administration’s recent announcement of plans to expand drilling was met by hostility from most of The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers.

The group of policy, political and government experts, who are answering election-year questions from readers through our “Your Voice” feature, didn’t pull any punches in answering this query: Would you support allowing oil drilling off the coast of California if it meant that gasoline cost less and energy bills went down?

“I cannot imagine that any slight impact offshore oil drilling would have on energy prices would outweigh the considerable environmental risk associated with it,” said University of California President Janet Napolitano.

“Cost savings mean nothing on a dead planet,” said California Nurses Association Executive Director Bonnie Castillo. “(Offshore drilling) not only impacts the health and safety of patients whose communities are a target of potential oil spills — but which also increases dependence on fossil fuels, which are killing our planet.”

Opposition also came from less expected sources, including some of the state’s most prominent Republicans.

“The California coastline is a national treasure,” said former California Governor Pete Wilson. “Our coastline also contains valuable resources available for economic activity and the enjoyment by citizens in our state and by visitors from around the nation and the world. We need not risk new drilling in areas offshore that pose a significant and needless threat.”

Wilson instead emphasized the importance of expanded onshore exploration and expansion, an alternative suggested by several Influencers. Others stressed the need for less stringent regulation of renewable energy sources as a necessary counterpart for a continued offshore ban.

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“I don’t believe Californians want to sacrifice their coastline for less expensive gasoline,” agreed former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, now President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation. “We’ve embraced the mantel of being the nation’s leader in renewable energy sources… However, we often shoot ourselves in the foot by putting costly regulations in the way of developing and using renewable energy sources.”

Some Influencers acknowledged that costs are a consideration for working-class and low-income Californians. But they said the answer is to make alternative energy more affordable.

“…Energy costs are a real concern for many Californians, especially those from low-income backgrounds,” said California State University Chancellor Tim White. “Instead of permanently affecting our precious coastline, we should invest in more research and development – led by California’s colleges and universities – on alternative and more efficient sources of energy.”

“We need to be investing in long-term solutions,” agreed Aziza Hasan, Executive Director for Los Angeles Muslim-Jewish community organization New Ground. “The price paid by future generations far outweighs a lower gas bill.”

Some Influencers argued that drilling could be accomplished without increasing environmental risk.

“Focusing on safely extracting oil offshore means having to transport less fuels by rail, truck or pipeline,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the FlashReport website. “Increasing supply will bring down the cost. Which is one way to make California more affordable.”

“My understanding is that slant drilling from derricks up to one mile inland can be effective and safe,” agreed longtime Democratic consultant David Townsend, founder of TCT Public Affairs. “If that is in fact the case, we should consider this form of extraction to increase supply and lower costs.”

Still others rejected the premise of a tradeoff, arguing that expanded drilling in coastal waters would have little economic impact.

“The notion that gasoline would somehow cost less if California would allow offshore drilling is a specious argument,” said former Assembly Speaker John Pérez. “Oil prices are based on a huge international market and are subject to a number of different factors that are not solely under the control of California’s governance.”

“…An increase in offshore drilling in California would not necessarily translate in lower gas or energy prices here at home,” agreed Renata Simril, President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation. “Exxon Valdez, Deep Water Horizon, or the accident in Santa Barbara in 1969 should stand as constant reminders… that the environmental cost of those incidents far outweighs any perceived cost benefit of gas or energy in the California marketplace.”

California Endowment Senior Vice President Daniel Zingale was even more vehement.

“The supposed choice between a healthy environment versus economic well-being is the lie used to justify greed at the expense of people’s lives,” he said. “…The path to affordability will be forged with clean energy, not trashed by economically and environmentally disastrous offshore oil platforms.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.