WASHINGTON — When Democrat Gray Davis ran for governor 12 years ago, he criticized his challenger, Republican Dan Lungren, for not backing a permanent ban on offshore drilling.
“Dan, when are you going to get with the program?” Davis said. “Join Pete Wilson and I and support a permanent ban on new offshore drilling.”
Wilson, the GOP governor at the time, backed the ban, as did many Republicans of his era, when polls showed Californians overwhelmingly opposed to drilling after a famous 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara. Back then, a pledge against offshore drilling was considered an environmental litmus test for statewide candidates of any stripe.
Things have changed.
Fast-forward to 2010, after Californians saw gasoline prices head toward $5 a gallon a couple of years ago, and the polls suddenly began showing majority support: Now all three Republican candidates vying for the party’s Senate nomination are comfortable with drilling, though there are nuances in their positions.
Drill, baby, drill.
That was the GOP campaign slogan at the party’s 2008 national convention, and it applies to the two frontrunners, former businesswoman Carly Fiorina and former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell, and a third challenger, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
Fiorina and DeVore both want to end the ban on more offshore drilling.
Campbell said he opposes more offshore drilling but supports onshore drilling. He said the technology has developed greatly in the past 20 years, allowing “a substantial amount of drilling from shore — and I’ve never had a problem with that.”
Mick Womersley, an associate professor at Unity College in Maine who specializes in energy and the environment, said any politician who backs only onshore drilling isn’t calling for much new oil production.“We’re more or less tapped out of new onshore oil,” he said. “We find a little bit of it in the lower 48 (states), but not very much.”
Onshore drilling, by definition, is done on land, while offshore drilling is done at sea. Offshore drilling is done on platforms that are either free-floating or anchored to the seabed. Oil within a few thousand feet of the shoreline can be accessed onshore by the use of sideways or slant drilling.
Many proponents of offshore drilling argue that technology has changed dramatically in the past 40 years, making it much safer. But it’s still not without risk, as evidenced by the explosion and sinking last week of an oil rig off the Louisiana coast that left 11 workers missing and raised fears of a major oil spill.
“It has changed an awful lot,” Womersley said. “But in any industry, you’re going to have accidents.”Drilling has been a contentious issue in Washington and Sacramento of late.
Earlier this week at the State Capitol, a legislative committee killed a bill introduced by DeVore that would have allowed more drilling from existing platforms by companies that prepaid their future royalties and taxes. DeVore wanted to use the proceeds to plug the state’s budget.
And last month, President Barack Obama rattled many environmentalists when he announced a plan to open much of the East Coast waters and other areas in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico to drilling.
The California coast was excluded from the plan — speculation is that the White House feared opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and the state’s Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein — but many environmentalists still worry that could change.
“We don’t feel secure,” said Gina Goodhill, oceans advocate with Environment California. “I don’t think that anyone really thinks that this is going to be a permanent solution or that California is protected in the long term. It’s great in the short term.”
She said the group is opposed to drilling across the board.
“We think in general that any new drilling on the federal level, whether it’s in California or in another state, is the wrong direction for our country,” Goodhill said.
Womersley said California was not included in the plan because of “pure politics” and a recognition that opposition in the state still remains strong.
But attitudes are changing.
In 2008, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 51 percent of the state’s residents favored more drilling off the coast. It marked the first time that a poll found a majority of Californians backing the idea.
Lungren, now a member of the House of Representatives, said that more Californians started looking at offshore drilling “with a different eye” in response to the economic downturn and the growing realization that the country suffers with its reliance on foreign oil.
“The fact that we’re engaged in combat in the Middle East for an extended period of time has given some people pause to reflect on the role that natural resources play in this world,” he said.
But Lungren, who has always backed offshore drilling, said the tide has definitely turned among GOP candidates, noting that it was “politically uncomfortable” to be a pro-drilling Republican seeking office in California not so very long ago.
“It was a relatively lonely position,” he said.
Regardless of who wins the June Republican primary, voters will have a clear choice in November’s general election, when Boxer tries to win a fourth term. Boxer, the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is one of Congress’ staunchest opponents of drilling.
Boxer is also a major proponent of cap-and-trade, a market-based system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s now opposed by all three Senate GOP candidates, who fear it would hurt businesses.
In a recent meeting with Sacramento Bee editors and reporters, Fiorina called a cap-and-trade bill “an unbelievable job killer” and said it would result in trillions of dollars in lost economic output. Even if it’s implemented, she said, it will not sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless China takes similar steps.
“That sounds like a really bad deal to me,” she said.
Fiorina, however, spoke in favor of a cap-and-trade bill when she served as an adviser to former Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“She made those comments as a surrogate for the McCain campaign,” said Amy Thoma, Fiorina’s spokeswoman. “So it wasn’t necessarily reflective of her personal opinion.”